Philippines, Japan, U.S. want to stabilize South China Sea tensions

On April 12, leaders from the U.S., Philippines, and Japan met in the White House to call out China’s increasing military assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. U.S. president Joe Biden announced new joint military efforts and infrastructure spending in the Philippines, and Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr said that a trilateral cooperation agreement would alter dynamics in the South China Sea and the region.

Marcos was hopeful that around US$100 billion in potential investment deals over the next five to 10 years from the summit will materialize. As of April, Biden has requested that Congress approve an additional US$128 million for infrastructure projects at U.S. bases in the Philippines. 

Marcos also met with U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin, who reinforced continued American support for the Philippines, amid rising hostilities between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea.

“This whole cooperation is critical to our collective security and continued prosperity across the region,” Austin said.

In recent months, there were numerous confrontations between the Philippines and China, primarily at the Second Thomas Shoal, home to a small number of Filipino soldiers based on a warship that Manila grounded in 1999 to assert its sovereignty claims. Notably, Chinese ships were using water cannons against Filipino boats.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, notwithstanding a 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that ruled Beijing’s sweeping claims had no legal grounds. 

The post-summit joint statement stated: “We express our serious concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. We are also concerned by the militarization of reclaimed features and unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.” 

For years, the U.S. was regarded as an anchor point for many of its allies in Asia. While the Philippines and Japan are strategic partners, their relations were in the context of a U.S.-centric system, according to Philippines-based geopolitical analyst Don McLain Gill. However, the April trilateral summit in Washington indicated a change. 

“This three-way represents the growing desire in Manila and Tokyo and even in Washington to go beyond traditional models in order to further integrate collaborative efforts based on common goals,” Gill remarked to news outlet DW. Japan’s defense chief, Kihara Minoru, met his Philippine counterpart Gilberto Teodoro in Hawaii on May 3 to sign the Reciprocal Access Agreement, to work out the details, for example handling of weapons and ammunition, for joint military exercises. 

Recently, Japan was involved in a joint maritime exercise with the U.S. and Australia in the West Philippine Sea. West Philippine Sea is the official designation by the government of the Philippines to the parts of the South China Sea that are included in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Georgi Engelbrecht, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, in comments to DW news outlet, called Japan a “quiet champion” in Asia and said the trilateral summit revealed the convergence of enhanced ties between Japan and the Philippines as well as the US’ resurging alliance with both countries.

“Maybe it started with the intensification in the Senkaku dispute, then continued with the (former Japanese PM Shinzo) Abe administration, but it culminated in this awareness of the Indo-Pacific, where it looks at Southeast Asia also as an area that can be supported in various means, in order to further underline certain ideals that this part of the world shares,” he told DW.

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told DW that besides working on military cooperation, the U.S. and Japan will likely increase their investment in the Philippines to create more jobs for Filipino as a strong economy will help the government to remain in power over the years, so that the lure of China providing loans and money to entice politicians to stand on their side can be offset if Japan and the U.S. up the ante.

Still, questions remained as to the effectiveness of the trilateral cooperation and analysts have cautioned against hinging on the April’s trilateral summit to completely address tensions in the South China Sea.

“The bigger question is (…) if this will sustain in the long run,” analyst Don McLain Gill said, asserting that presidential governance such as the Philippines and the U.S. are susceptible to changes in foreign policy, depending on who takes office every four years.

Notably, the U.S. will have its presidential election later this year, and the Philippines might get a new president in 2028, possibly halting Marcos’ attempt to boost partnerships with the EU, Australia, Japan and the U.S.

China state-owned media the Global Times decried Marcos’ attempts to inch closer to the U.S., claiming that even Imee Marcos, chair of the Philippine Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and sister of the president, warned that her brother was using “emotion rather than reason” in his close ties with the U.S. 

Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, in an interview with Global Times, cautioned against siding with the U.S., as “everything becomes blurry in our relations with China and the rest of the ASEAN countries.”

Photo credit: iStock/ Evgeniia Ozerkina

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