US official meets Marcos in Philippines in diplomatic push

BANGKOK (AP): A top State Department official met Thursday with Philippine President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Manila, part of an ongoing diplomatic outreach in the Asia-Pacific region by Washington to try and blunt growing Chinese influence.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted after meeting Marcos that the two discussed a range of issues, including the Philippines-U.S. alliance, deepening economic ties, advancing human rights and “preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Marcos, the son of longtime Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who was ousted in a popular uprising in 1986, was elected in a landslide last month, alarming human rights activists and pro-democracy groups.

The U.S. appears prepared to work with him, with President Joe Biden being one of the first world leaders to call Marcos and congratulate him on his electoral victory.

Further details on his meeting with Sherman were not immediately available, but her trip comes as part of a broader effort to reach out in person to leaders in the region as concern increases over China’s push to expand its own influence in a strategically critical area.

It includes the South China Sea, where the Philippines and Vietnam, among others, have squared off with China’s efforts to dominate the strategic waterway it claims virtually in its entirety. The U.S. and its allies have responded with so-called freedom of navigation patrols, sometimes encountering a pushback from China’s military.

Australia protested after it said a Chinese fighter jet made dangerous maneuvers around one of its surveillance aircraft and forced it to return to its base last month. Beijing rejected the accusation.

Sherman is also making stops in South Korea, Laos and Vietnam. U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet is also in the region, meeting with officials in Thailand, Singapore and Brunei.

The State Department said the two trips highlight American commitment to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member regional bloc known as ASEAN, as well as Washington’s bilateral partnerships.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is also a featured speaker on the weekend at the Shangra-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s premier defense and security forum.

And at the end of May in Japan, Biden launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a new trade deal that so far 12 nations have signed on to.

“There are several components to our Indo-Pacific strategy, from advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific where we can deal with problems openly and have rules that are transparently and fairly applied,” Chollet told The Diplomat online news magazine in an article this week.

“The second part of the strategy is forging stronger connections within the region and beyond,” he said.

He said the strategy includes strengthening the U.S.-ASEAN relationship and also working within other groupings, such as the British, Australian and American partnership known as AUKUS and the Quad format involving Australia, India, the U.S. and Japan.

China has itself been active in its diplomatic engagement in the region, recently inking a security deal with the Solomon Islands that the U.S., Australia and others worry could give Beijing the opportunity to establish a naval base in the South Pacific.

China and Cambodia on Wednesday also broke ground on a port expansion project at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, which the U.S. and others fear could provide Beijing with a strategically important military outpost on the Gulf of Thailand.

Following the Solomon Islands deal, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to multiple other island nations, hoping to sign an ambitious deal with 10 of them covering a broad range of areas including security and fisheries. He couldn’t find consensus on that deal but instead signed smaller bilateral agreements.

Australia pushed back, sending its own foreign minister to several Pacific island nations on her own diplomatic outreach.