MANILA (AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday (Aug 6) relations between the United States and the Philippines were “quite extraordinary”, and that Washington was committed to its defence pact with Manila.

Mr Blinken gave the assurance amid rising tensions in the region following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan.

“The alliance is strong, and I believe (it) can grow even stronger,” he said.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who met Mr Blinken earlier in the day, said the current geopolitcal environment showed how important US-Philippine ties were.

Mrs Pelosi’s Taiwan trip highlighted how volatile the region was, he said.

He hailed the “special relationship” between the two countries.

The United States has a security pact with the Philippines, and has backed its former colony in increasingly heated disputes in the South China Sea with China. 

Mr Blinken’s meeting with Mr Marcos came after China launched a series of huge military exercises around Taiwan that the US and its Western allies had condemned. 

During drills on Thursday (Aug 4) and Friday (Aug 5), China fired ballistic missiles and deployed fighter jets and warships around Taiwan, about 400km north of the Philippines. The war games were to continue Saturday. 

China’s People’s Liberation Army also declared multiple no-go danger zones around Taiwan, straddling major shipping lanes and coming within 20km of the island’s shores at some points.

The moves came in response to Mrs Pelosi’s visit, which prompted fury in China. 

Mr Blinken arrived in Manila late Friday after attending an Asean summit in Cambodia. There, he condemned China’s military drills as “a significant escalation”.

Like other members of Asean, the Philippines does not formally recognise Taiwan and has shown no appetite for backing Taipei against China.

The Philippine Foreign Ministry said Thursday it was “concerned with the rising tensions” to its north and urged “restraint by all parties”.

“Diplomacy and dialogue must prevail,” it said in a statement.

As regional tensions rise, Washington is keen to preserve its security alliance with Manila, which includes a mutual defence treaty and permission for the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on several Philippine bases.

It also allows US troops to access certain military bases in the country.
Mr Marcos has indicated he will strike a balance between China and the United States, which are vying to have the closest ties with his administration.

Mr Blinken is the first Cabinet-level US official to visit Mr Marcos, who assumed power in late June.

Relations between the two allies soured under former president Rodrigo Duterte, who rejected American criticism of his human rights record and vowed an “independent foreign policy”, including closer ties with Beijing.

While Mr Marcos has said he wants to boost trade ties with the US instead of a “dependence” on aid, and signalled an openness to join an economic initiative pushed by President Joe Biden to counter Chinese influence, Beijing has made early efforts to shore up its gains in the Philippines.

China sent Vice-President Wang Qishan to Mr Marcos’ inauguration, while the Biden administration was represented by Vice-President Kamala Harris’s husband, Mr Douglas Emhoff.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Mr Marcos last month, and the two sides pledged to maintain a strong relationship.

The Philippines has locked horns with China over the past few years over Beijing’s increasing presence in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Mr Marcos has said he will not cede “even a square inch of territory” to any foreign power.

The US will want to keep the Philippines as a close ally in the region through Mr Blinken’s visit, especially because of Manila’s proximity to Taiwan, said Mr Herman Kraft, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines.

“There’s a lot of attention being given to the Philippines so early in the Marcos administration to deny China any inroads,” Mr Kraft said. “The US wants to make sure that it maintains the Philippines as an ally, and that it doesn’t go towards the other extreme of being an ally to China.”