Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to bolster America’s alliance with the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., calling the Southeast Asian nation an “irreplaceable” ally as tensions between the U.S. and China spike.

Blinken, the first U.S. Cabinet official to visit the new Philippine leader, reiterated in a meeting with Marcos on Saturday America’s commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which pledged support in case of foreign attack.

“We always stand by our partners. It’s important to remember that,” Blinken said in a joint briefing with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, as the top diplomat repeated the U.S.’s “ironclad” commitment to the defense pact. An armed attack against the Philippines would invoke the pact and U.S. would be there to defend it, he said.

The Philippines has locked horns with China over the past few years over Beijing’s increasing presence in the resource-rich South China Sea. Marcos has said that he will not cede “even a square inch of territory” to any foreign power. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July met with Marcos and the two sides pledged to maintain a strong relationship.

U.S. and Philippine officials discussed on Saturday mutual military training exercises and assistance in modernizing the Asian nation’s armed forces. They also pledged to work closely on areas of food security, pandemic response, clean energy and climate change.

Joint sea patrols between the Philippines and the U.S. can take place under the defense pact, and that’s an issue which “can continue to be explored bilaterally,” Manalo said.

President Joe Biden has invited Marcos to visit the U.S. although no date has been set, the Philippine official said.

China is also seeking to warm ties with the Philippines, a former American colony and longtime ally that’s seen its ties with the U.S. turn shaky in recent years. Relations between Washington and Manila 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.

Blinken’s Manila trip follows House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit this week to nearby Taiwan, which ramped up tensions between the U.S. and China.

Marcos said Pelosi’s visit highlighted how tense things are in the region. Her visit, “to be perfectly candid, I did not think it raised the intensity, it just demonstrated how the intensity of the conflict has been at that level for a good while now,” Marcos told Blinken. “This just points to the fact of the importance of the relationship” between the U.S. and the Philippines, the president said.

While Marcos wants to boost trade ties with the U.S. instead of a “dependence” on aid, and signaled 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. It sent Vice President Wang Qishan to Marcos’ inauguration, while the Biden administration was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff.

The U.S. will want to keep the Philippines as a close ally in the region through Blinken’s visit, especially because of Manila’s proximity to Taiwan, said 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,” Kraft said. “The U.S. 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.”

Marcos is facing a $354 million fine for contempt of court in the U.S. after he failed to comply with rulings on disbursing his family’s assets.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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