VP Harris’ high impact Palawan visit

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

There was absolutely no doubt that US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the provincial island of Palawan, where she met with the fisherfolk of Barangay Tagburos in Puerto Princesa City, sent a clear message that the United States fully supports The Hague Arbitral Tribunal’s unanimous decision on the Philippine territorial claim.

The fishing community has a USAID-funded project in the area, and while the program’s focus is on countering illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or IUU fishing, it also aims to promote good fishing practices and ensure a sustainable source of food and livelihood for the local communities, according to the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center that implements the project.

We joined the US Vice President during the visit to Tagburos, and it was clear that members of the fishing community really appreciated the presence of VP Harris as she listened to their stories and expressed understanding of their concerns.

As she noted in her remarks delivered aboard the Philippine Coast Guard ship Teresa Magbanua, generations of families have fished in the waters of Palawan, providing not only food for their everyday subsistence but also serving as the economic lifeblood of their community. She also narrated her encounter with a young woman with a successful fish-drying business who helps other women by teaching them how to dry fish and derive some extra income for themselves and their families.

As explained by the URI, the “Fish Right” project uses “coastal science and fishery reform to improve the Philippines’ fishing industry – one of the largest in the world – which was endangered by destructive fishing practices, storms and coastal degradation. The program seeks to build resilient fishing communities while ensuring that women and other marginalized groups participate as equals in coastal stewardship.”

Actually, the project is also a classic example of the saying that goes, “If you give a man fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

But one might add that when you deprive a man of his livelihood and prevent him from feeding his family, then you are asking for trouble. We Filipinos are known to have a long endurance for patience and sacrifice, but like any normal human being, we have a limit to our patience, hitting a boiling point. Our forefathers fought hard for our independence and certainly, our fathers have fought many battles in the past. But as a peace-loving nation, we only have one wish for our region – “peace and prosperity for all.”

Nevertheless, 90 percent of Filipinos support President Marcos when he said – we will not give up one square inch of our territory to any foreign power.

And as VP Harris noted, the lifeblood of communities like Tagburos would be put at risk “when foreign vessels enter Philippine waters and illegally deplete the fishing stock; when they harass and intimidate local fishers; when they pollute the ocean and destroy the marine ecosystem.”

In fact, many people have told me that they have never heard the United States send a more direct and clear message the way Vice President Harris put it when she said, “As an ally, the United States stands with the Philippines in the face of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea,” not mincing words when she added that the US will continue to rally its allies and partners  against unlawful and irresponsible behavior.

“When the international rules-based order is threatened somewhere, it is threatened everywhere,” she emphasized.

Naturally, the US vice president’s visit generated a lot of interest. In my separate interviews with Karen Davila and Pia Hontiveros, and during the lunch of the Consular Corps of the Philippines where I was invited to speak, I was pleased to describe the significance of the historic visit – signaling a renewed commitment to the alliance between our two great nations.

There is no doubt that the US places a lot of importance on its bilateral relationship with the Philippines, as also evidenced by the past visits of high-level officials such as State Secretary Antony Blinken, US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and the Congressional delegation led by Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. All of these developments tell us that the US is squarely behind us with regard to the security situation in the West Philippine Sea.

There is also an effort from the United States to enhance its relationship with the Philippines by exploring new areas of cooperation to boost the alliance and, at the same time, strengthen their positions relative to the Indo-Pacific, given the evolving nature and emergence of security threats in the region.

During VP Harris’ meeting with her counterpart, Vice President Sara Duterte at the Aguado residence of Speaker Martin Romualdez, the interaction was very cordial and pleasant as they exchanged notes on a number of topics that included Filipino food. Apparently, the US Vice President is familiar with some Filipino dishes like lumpia or fried spring rolls, because there are Filipino-Americans in her office.

VP Kamala’s courtesy call on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Malacañang covered a wide range of concerns that included the economy and how both nations can expand their investment and trade partnership across several sectors. They also discussed food security and clean energy.

Both President Marcos and VP Harris welcomed the start of negotiations on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. As we all know, the climate crisis has made the transition to clean energy even more urgent now, considering the Philippines is one of the nations that is most vulnerable to natural disasters.

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