U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met briefly with Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday on the sidelines of the of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok.
"The Vice President noted a key message that President [Joe] Biden emphasized in his November 14 meeting with President Xi: we must maintain open lines of communication to responsibly manage the competition between our countries," a White House official said.
The message may run counter to her visit to the Philippine island of Palawan Tuesday, which Beijing would likely see as a rebuke. The Palawan island chain in the South China Sea is just 330 km east of the Spratly Islands that are claimed entirely by China and partly by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Harris will be the highest-ranking American official to visit Palawan.
While many in the region fear an invasion of Taiwan, Chinese militarization is most acutely felt in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented dredging and artificial island-building in the waters, creating 1,295 hectares of new land in the Spratlys, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim all of the Spratlys, while some of the chain s claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei claims an exclusive economic zone over the Spratlys.
Trillions of dollars’ worth, or approximately one-third of, global maritime trade passes through the strategic waters of the South China Sea every year. Harris will engage with locals in the fishing community in Palawan and emphasize “U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation,” a senior White House official told VOA during a Friday briefing with reporters.
The official said Harris will also underscore “the consequences of illegal unregulated and unreported fishing.” Known as its acronym, IUU is a big problem for regional countries with China listed as the worst offender, according to the latest IUU Fishing Index which maps illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in 152 coastal countries.
In May the U.S. launched a maritime initiative aimed at monitoring territorial waters, called the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, during Biden’s Tokyo summit with leaders of Japan, India and Australia — the group known as the Quad. The four countries’ informal grouping is seen as a counter to China.
In her bilateral with current APEC chair, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Harris discussed expanding bilateral cooperation on areas including climate resilience, clean energy transition, and promoting sustainable development, as well as the escalating political violence in neighboring Myanmar since last year’s military coup against the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The pair focused on strengthening the alliance between the U.S. and Thailand. Bangkok has been a U.S. treaty ally for nearly 50 years, since the 1954 Manila Pact, a Cold War-era collective defense treaty among Western nations, the Philippines, and Thailand.
In 2003, Washington announced Thailand as a major non-NATO ally, a designation given to close allies that have strategic working relationships with the U.S. military but are not NATO members.
The U.S. will be the next chair of APEC and will host the summit next year.
"I'm happy to hand over the chairmanship to U.S. We are ready to conduct a seamless cooperation with them," Chan-ocha said, handing to Harris a “chalom,” a woven bamboo basket used to carry goods and gifts in Thailand that this year’s APEC symbol.
Harris announced that San Francisco will be the host city for next year’s APEC.
“There is no better place to host APEC 2023 than California, a state known for economic innovation,” she said.
APEC Leaders issued a summit statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
"Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy," it said.
The statement, agreed by all APEC members including Russia, was word-for-word exactly the same as the declaration released Wednesday at the end of the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, between the world’s 20 largest economies. Indonesian President Joko Widodo characterized the negotiations as “tough.”
Harris ends her day with a visit to the Wat Ratchabophit Buddhist temple with second gentleman Doug Emhoff. On Sunday she hosts a roundtable discussion with local environmental leaders to discuss the impacts of the climate crisis before heading to Manila, in the Philippines.