MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. welcomed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday, the highest-ranking US official to visit the Philippines since he took office, although the meeting came at a sensitive time as ties between Washington and Beijing have rapidly sunk to their worst level in recent years.
There was no live broadcast of Blinken’s morning visit to the presidential palace in Manila on state television, which aired a local agricultural program and later covered the visit by America’s top diplomat in a brief news bulletin. Only a few journalists based in Manila were allowed to cover the event.
The presidential office later released photos showing Marcos Jr. greeting Blinken with a handshake and the two huddled in a meeting with their officials, where Marcos Jr. said he was surprised by the turn of events surrounding the president’s visit of the US House Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan this week. .
Pelosi’s trip to the self-ruled island angered China, which claims Taiwan as its territory to annex by force if necessary. China on Thursday began military exercises just off the coast of Taiwan and on Friday cut off contacts with the United States on vital issues, including military issues and critical climate cooperation, as part of retaliatory moves against the US for Pelosi visits Taiwan despite dire warnings from China.
“I don’t think, to be completely honest, I didn’t think it escalated the tension, it just showed that — how intense this conflict was,” Marcos Jr. said, based on a transcript released by the presidential palace.
“This just shows how unstable the international diplomatic scene is not only in the region,” he added.
Marcos Jr., who took office on June 30 after a landslide election victory, cited the vital relationship between Manila and Washington, which are treaty allies, and US aid to the Philippines over the years, adding without elaborating his hope “that we will continue to develop this relationship in the face of all the changes we have seen.”
Blinken repeated to Marcos Jr. Washington’s commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and to “cooperate with you in common challenges.”
“Our relationship is very unusual because it’s really founded on friendship, it’s also forged in partnership and it’s strengthened by the fact that it’s an alliance.”
Blinken arrived Friday night in Manila after attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meetings in Cambodia, where he joined his Chinese and Russian counterparts. During the meeting, ASEAN foreign ministers called for “utmost restraint” as China went ahead with military exercises around Taiwan and retaliatory moves against the US fearing the situation “could destabilize the region and ultimately lead to a wrong calculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unforeseen consequences between great powers”.
After meeting briefly with Marcos Jr., Blinken was scheduled to meet via video with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, who recently tested positive for the coronavirus. They were going to hold a short online press conference where reporters were asked to focus their questions only on Blinken’s visit to the Philippines.
Blinken will also visit a vaccination clinic in Manila, where he will meet with groups helping to fight the coronavirus outbreak, then go to a clean energy expo and meet with US Embassy staff before flying out on Saturday night.
Shortly before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, when there was speculation that her plane might make a brief stop at the former US Clark Air Force Base north of Manila for refueling, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian expressed Beijing’s strong opposition to her then-unannounced plan. Pelosi to visit Taiwan. He expressed his hope in a television interview “that the Philippine side will strictly adhere to the one-China principle and handle all Taiwan-related issues wisely to ensure the healthy and stable development of China-Philippines relations.”
Huang’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke from opposition senator Risa Hontiveros, who said “the ambassador should not insist on such policies, especially considering that his country stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to recognize a decision issued by a international arbitral tribunal and ignores and defies international law in the West Philippine Sea when it suits its interest.”
Hontiveros was referring to a 2016 arbitration ruling on a Philippine complaint that invalidated China’s massive territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. He used the Philippine name for the disputed waters.
China dismissed that decision, which was hailed by the US and Western allies, as a sham and continues to defy it.
AP reporter Andrew Harnik contributed to this story.