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Harris is traveling near the South China Sea. Here's why that matters

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, hands a cha-lom basket to Vice President Harris. Next year, APEC will be in San Francisco.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (R) hands a ceremonial woven cha-lom to US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) at the handover ceremony during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Haiyun Jiang / POOL / AFP) (Photo by HAIYUN JIANG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Vice President Harris is making an unusual stop on her latest trip to Asia. On Monday evening, she is set to become the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Palawan, an island of the Philippines that borders the South China Sea.

It's a neighboring island to the Spratly Islands, territory at the center of a protracted dispute between China and nearby countries including the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia.

China has bulked up man-made islands in the South China Sea, adding airstrips and military installations to the Spratlys. Its maritime claims to the South China Sea have been rejected by an international tribunal. The United States views the Chinese claims as illegitimate and last year conducted naval exercises in the waters.

Harris' visit to Palawan is meant to show U.S. solidarity with the Philippines, a senior administration official told reporters, noting the United States will "stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods, and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing."

The stop comes after Harris met leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok over the weekend — including a brief conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. President Biden met with Xi in Bali on the sidelines of the G-20 summit a week ago.

Harris is also meeting with Phillipine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila. Her visit to the county is important for reinforcing the bilateral relationship as China has become more aggressive in the region, said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The main point is to focus on cementing U.S. strategic ties with the Philippines, which is a critical country in case there was ... a really dangerous situation between the U.S. and China in the region," Kurlantzick told NPR.

Kurlantzick said the Philippines remains a critical ally to the U.S. in case of potential conflict between China and Taiwan.

"Southeast Asian countries are becoming just increasingly concerned about China's much more assertive regional diplomacy," including Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, Kurlantzick said.

During her visit, Harris will also be discussing the impacts of climate change on the region and how illegal and unregulated fishing in the area impacts the local economy in Palawan.

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