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What Kamala Harris’ Trip to the Philippines Means for China

American leaders have made numerous visits to the Philippines, a long-standing military ally in Southeast Asia. But Vice President Kamala Harris’ stop on Tuesday in the country’s archipelagic province of Palawan represents something new. She is the first U.S. official to go there, in what observers say is meant more as a message to China than one to the Philippines.

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Harris toured a coast guard vessel and spoke to Philippine officials in Palawan to underscore America’s values and hopes for the region: “respect for sovereignty and international integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation.”

The Vice President’s visit, along with talks in Manila on Monday about increased joint defense projects, leaves the Philippines in a precarious position—straddling the line between the interests of its colonizer-turned-ally in the U.S. and its largest trade partner in China. Across the region, countries have been put in a similar tight spot, increasingly forced to choose a side where they might prefer to stay above the fray in the competition for global influence between the U.S. and China.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was elected president of the Philippines in May, said in July that, like many of his regional counterparts, he would pursue “a friend to all, an enemy to none” foreign policy. But this aim has become more untenable as differences between the world’s two superpowers grow over issues concerning human rights, economic policy, and the rule of law.

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It’s no coincidence Harris visited Palawan. Just off its west coast is the South China Sea: a waterway that has become a regional flashpoint after Beijing lay claim to virtually all of it and its encompassing islands, citing historic maps. China is not the only claimant—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also staked claims to overlapping maritime territories. But China has bolstered its presence in recent years, building artificial islands from the sea’s obscure reefs and sandbars and arming them