MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday, the highest ranking American official to visit the Philippines since he took office, although the meeting came at a delicate time as ties between Washington and Beijing have rapidly plummeted to their worst level in years.
There was no live broadcast of the morning visit by Blinken at the presidential palace in Manila on the state-run TV network, which showed a local agricultural program and later reported on the the visit of America’s top diplomat in a brief newscast. Only a few Manila-based journalists were allowed in a pool coverage of the event.
The presidential office later released photographs showing Marcos Jr. greeting Blinken with a handshake and the two huddled in a meeting with their officials where Marcos Jr. mentioned he was surprised by the turn of events related to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week.
Pelosi’s trip to the self-governed island infuriated China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary. China on Thursday launched military exercises just off Taiwan’s coasts and on Friday cut off contacts with the United States on vital issues, including military matters and crucial climate cooperation, as part of retaliatory moves against the U.S. for Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan despite dire warnings from China.
“I do not think, to be perfectly candid, I did not think it raised the intensity, it just demonstrated it — how the intensity of that conflict has been,” Marcos Jr. said based on a transcript released by the presidential palace.
“This just demonstrates how volatile 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 U.S. assistance to the Philippines over the years, adding without elaborating his hope “that we will continue to evolve that relationship in the face of all the changes we have been seeing.”
Blinken reiterated to Marcos Jr. Washington’s commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and “to working with you on shared challenges.”
“Our relationship is quite extraordinary because it is really founded in friendship, it’s forged as well 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 was joined by his Chinese and Russian counterparts. During the meeting, ASEAN foreign ministers called for “maximum restraint” as China mounted war drills around Taiwan and retaliatory moves against the U.S. fearing the situation “could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.”
After briefly meeting Marcos Jr., Blinken was scheduled to meet by video with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, who recently tested positive for the coronavirus. They were to hold a brief online press conference, where journalists were asked to focus their questions only on Blinken’s Philippine visit.
Blinken will also visit a vaccination clinic in Manila, where he will meet groups helping fight coronavirus outbreaks and then go to a clean energy fair and meet U.S. Embassy staff before flying out Saturday night.
Shortly before Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, when speculations arose that her aircraft might stop over briefly at the former U.S. Clark Air Force base north of Manila for refueling, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian expressed Beijing’s vehement opposition to Pelosi’s then-unannounced plan to visit Taiwan. He expressed his hope in a TV interview “that the Philippine side will strictly abide by the one-China principle and handle all Taiwan-related issues with prudence to ensure sound and steady development of China-Philippines relations.”
Huang’s remarks drew a sharp rebuke from opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who said “the ambassador shouldn’t pontificate on such policies, especially considering that his country stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to recognize a decision rendered by an international arbitral court and ignores and flouts international law in the West Philippine Sea when it suits her interest.”
Hontiveros was referring to a 2016 arbitration ruling on a Philippine complaint that invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. She used the Philippine name for the disputed waters.
China has dismissed that ruling, which was welcomed by the U.S. and Western allies, as a sham and continues to defy it.
AP journalist Andrew Harnik contributed to this story.