By Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom
NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and his Philippine counterpart, Ferdinand Marcos, underscored their support for freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea on Thursday, in response to China’s efforts to exert its influence there.
Biden and Marcos held their first face-to-face talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Marcos, son of the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, took power in June.
“The leaders discussed the situation in the South China Sea and underscored their support for freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the White House said in a statement after the talks.
Biden said as the two men began their talks that he wanted to talk about the South China Sea, COVID-19 and renewable energy. He thanked Marcos for opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The United States has accused China of increased “provocations” against rival claimants to territory in the South China Sea and other countries operating there.
“The role of the United States in maintaining the peace in our region is something that is much appreciated by all the countries in the region and the Philippines especially,” Marcos said.
The Philippines is a key ally in of the United States and vital strategically in case of any U.S. need to defend Taiwan militarily from Chinese attack, given its geographical position.
The United States is keen to arrange greater access to bases in the Philippines given the need to prepare for that contingency.
“The leaders reflected on the importance of the U.S.-Philippines alliance. President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines,” the White House said.
Manila’s ambassador to the United States, a relative of Marcos, told Japan’s Nikkei newspaper this month the Philippines would let U.S. forces use the Southeast Asian nation’s military bases in the event of a Taiwan conflict only “if it is important for us, for our own security.”
The meeting with Biden underlines the stunning turnaround in fortunes for the disgraced former first family of the Philippines, 36 years after Marcos’s father was driven into exile by a “people power” uprising.
The new president is on his first trip to the United States in 15 years. He is the subject of a U.S. contempt-of-court order for refusing to cooperate with a Hawaii court that ruled the Marcos family must pay $2 billion of plundered wealth to victims of abuses during his father’s martial law era.
He has rejected allegations his family stole from the treasury and has diplomatic immunity as head of state.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in New York and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)