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Marcos says Taiwan tension underscores importance of Philippines-US ties as Blinken visits

MANILA: President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Saturday that Philippines-US ties are important in the face of a “volatile” geopolitical situation, as he hosted US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Manila amid rising tensions in the region.

Blinken, the highest-ranking American official to visit the Philippines since Marcos took office on June 30, was on a visit to the Southeast Asian country just days after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this week, a move that had further strained US-China relations and led to fresh tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Following Pelosi’s controversial visit to the self-ruled island, which is just north of the archipelago nation, the Philippine government had urged restraint and reiterated its adherence to the One-China policy, a diplomatic acknowledgement of China’s position that there is only one Chinese government.

As Marcos welcomed Blinken at the presidential palace in Manila, the Philippine leader touched on Pelosi’s visit and the war in Ukraine, which he said demonstrated “how volatile the international diplomatic scene” has been across the globe.

“This just points to the fact of the importance of the relationship between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines,” Marcos said.

“I hope that we will continue to evolve that relationship in the face of all the changes that we have been seeing.”

Blinken’s trip was timely, the president added, with Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan conveying the intensity of the situation.

“I do not think, to be perfectly candid — I did not think it raised the intensity; it just demonstrated how the intensity of the conflict has been,” he said.

Beijing, which viewed Pelosi’s visit as “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs,” had launched military exercises just off Taiwan’s coast on Thursday, and later cut off contacts with the US on vital issues, including military and climate cooperation.

The Philippines is Taiwan’s second-closest neighbor after China.

Manila has maintained close business and cultural ties with the island over the years, though formal diplomatic relations were severed in 1975.

Marcos also said that the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty is in “constant evolution,” referring to a 70-year-old defense pact stipulating that Manila and Washington would support each other in the events that either were attacked by an external party.

The US is committed to the pact and hopes to deepen economic relations with the Philippines, Blinken said, especially considering the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The alliance is strong, and I believe can grow even stronger,” he said. “We’re committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty. We’re committed to working with you on shared challenges.”

The Philippines has had a history of strained ties with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, with former President Rodrigo Duterte having embraced a Beijing-friendly direction while attempting to distance the Philippines from its colonial master the US during his six-year term in office.

As both powers attempt to boost influence in the region, in July China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first top foreign official to make a working trip to Manila since Marcos took office.

A visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden might be happening in the near future for Marcos, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique A. Manalo said, as officials are in the middle of hashing out details for the potential trip.

The Philippines has looked “to the big powers to calm the waters and keep the peace,” Manalo said, as he touched on the importance of maintaining lines of communication “as a way of trying to prevent matters from escalating and reducing tensions” in the Taiwan strait.

“We can ill afford further escalation of tensions in the region,” Manalo said.