US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with new Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on Saturday to reaffirm ties with America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia amid rising tensions in the “volatile” region.

Blinken said America’s relationship with the Philippines is “extraordinary” and assured the Philippines of its willingness to work with the Southeast Asian nation on defense, climate change and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blinken, the top US official who visited the Philippines after Marcos won a landslide victory in May, reaffirmed America’s commitment to the 1951 defense pact with the Philippines.

“We are committed to the Mutual Defense Treaty. We are committed to working with you on common issues,” he told Marcos in brief remarks.

Welcoming Blinken to the presidential palace, Marcos said the top US diplomat’s visit was timely as he expressed concern over rising tensions between China and Taiwan following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to the self-governing island.

“I didn’t think it increased the intensity; it just showed how intense the conflict is,” Marcos told Blinken before their private meeting.

China retaliated against Taiwan for Pelosi’s visit by conducting live-fire drills. Taiwan is the Philippines’ closest neighbor and is home to thousands of Filipino migrant workers.

At home, however, the Philippines is dealing with Beijing’s growing militarization and encroachment on a portion of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, where Chinese coast guard and militia vessels constantly harass Filipino fishermen and shadow research boats.

“Our relationship is quite unusual because it’s really based on friendship, it’s also forged in partnership and strengthened by the fact that it’s also an alliance,” Blinken told Marcos.

Evolution of the contract

Marcos said the Philippines’ treaty alliance with the US is a “constant evolution.”

“I hope that we will continue to develop this relationship despite all the changes that we are seeing and the changes that are happening in our bilateral relationship with the United States,” he said.

The Philippines is an important and strategic ally of the US in Southeast Asia as it faces fierce competition from China’s power around the world.

Blinken’s visit is the latest attempt by the US to court the Philippines after relations soured under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose pandering to China led to empty promises of infrastructure and investment from Beijing.

In 2020, Duterte initially ordered the termination of the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, an integral component of the treaty that allows US soldiers on Philippine soil to visit the country regularly. Duterte ordered it to be reinstated a year later.

Dialogue with China

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, in a conversation with Blinken, reiterated the Philippines’ appeal to China and the United States to defuse tensions in the region.

“Of course, the Philippines continues to look to the great powers to help calm the waters and keep the peace,” Manalo told Blinken during a separate virtual meeting.

“We cannot afford further escalation of tensions in the region because we have already faced a number of challenges to get our economy back to work, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

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