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

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., right, welcomes Vice President Harris to Malacanang Palace in Manila on Nov. 21, 2022.
Ted Aljibe
AFP via Getty Images
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., right, welcomes Vice President Harris to Malacanang Palace in Manila on Nov. 21, 2022.

Updated November 21, 2022 at 10:05 AM ET

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 also met with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila and reinforced the U.S. commitment to its treaty ally. "We must reiterate, always, that we stand with you in defense of international rules and norms as it relates to the South China Sea. An armed attack on the Philippines Armed Forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments," she said.

Harris' 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.