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Philippines steps up operations with its allies

Philippines steps up operations with its allies


Against the backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea – most notably, yet another violent incident two weeks ago at the hotly-disputed Second Thomas Shoal – the Philippines has stepped up its cooperation with traditional allies.

In a historic first, the Southeast Asian nation conducted joint naval patrols with the United States, Australia, and Japan in the disputed waters, setting the stage for the emergence of a new “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific. 

The drill saw the Philippine Navy frigate BRP Antonio Luna joined by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Akebono, Royal Australian Navy frigate Warramunga and US littoral combat ship Mobile. The four allies conducted communication and division tactics exercises as part of their broader efforts at enhancing interoperability in response to potential contingencies in the region. 

The quadrilateral drill held over the weekend took place within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-miles exclusive zone, a clear sign of joint efforts to push China out of Philippine waters. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) characterized the unprecedented drill as part of the four allies’ shared “commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific through interoperability exercises in the maritime domain.” 

In a joint statement, the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines underscored their determination to “uphold the right to freedom of navigation and overflight and respect for maritime rights under international law” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Crucially, the drills came shortly before the first-ever trilateral summit among US President Joseph Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

The Biden administration is intent on institutionalizing tighter security cooperation with Japan and the Philippines as part of its ‘integrated deterrence’ strategy against China.

For its part Tokyo is seeking to upgrade its defense ties with the US as well as with the Philippines, which is expected to sign a Visiting Forces Agreement-style deal with Japan this week on the sidelines of the trilateral Japan-Philippine-US (JAPHUS) summit in the White House.

China has responded by warning against Cold War-style regional military blocs, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy closely tracked the recent quadrilateral exercises by the four allies. 

The situation on the ground is increasingly explosive. For the third time in months, Chinese coast guard forces employed water cannons against Philippine Navy resupply vessels that were en route to the Second Thomas Shoal. Several Philippine servicemen were injured during the incident, raising concerns over unwanted escalation into armed conflict between the two rival claimant states.

Since 1999, the Philippines has maintained direct control over the Second Thomas Shoal via the grounded BRP Sierra Madre vessel, which houses a detachment of Philippine marines.

In response to the latest incident, the Philippine government summoned China’s envoy in Manila to communicate its “strongest protest” yet. For his part, Marcos delivered an unusually stern speech in which he warned China: “We seek no conflict with any nation, more so nations that purport and claim to be our friends but we will not be cowed into silence, submission, or subservience. Filipinos do not yield.”

The Filipino president added, ushering in a whole-of-nation approach to the maritime crisis: “Over the succeeding weeks there shall be, implemented by the relevant national government agencies and instrumentalities, a response and countermeasure package that is proportionate, deliberate, and reasonable in the face of the open, unabating, and illegal, coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks by agents of the China Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Militia.”

Marcos made it clear that key allies, especially Washington, had “offered to help us on what the Philippines requires to protect and secure our sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction while ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific” and that he had “given them our requirements and we have been assured that they will be addressed.” 

Just days later, the much-anticipated quadrilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity between the Philippines and its three top security partners took place in the South China Sea. 

In a statement, Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said that his country the South China Sea issue “is directly related to the peace and stability of the region and is a legitimate concern of the international community” and that “Japan opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by force, such attempts as well as any actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea.”

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles made it clear that Australia has a direct national interest, since “respect for national sovereignty and agreed rules and norms based on international law underpin the stability of our region.” Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin characterized the quadrilateral exercises as part of “our shared commitment to ensuring that all countries are free to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. welcomed the drills as part of the Southeast Asian nation’s effort to upgrade “[its] capacity for individual and collective self-defense.” Aside from regularized multilateral patrols, Marcos Jr. is banking on a new era of strategic cooperation with traditional allies to keep China’s maritme assertiveness in check. 

It’s not clear what kind of defense aid and military equipment the US is going to offer to the Southeast Asian country, which has yet to acquire a modern fighter jet or warship from its longtime treaty ally. But Biden is expected to directly warn China against any unilateral action against the Philippines and, accordingly, reiterate that Washington has defense commitments to Manila in an event of armed confrontation in the disputed waters.

Over the past few years, multiple American administrations have offered assurance that any armed attack on Philippine troops, vessels and aircrafts in the South China Sea would automatically activate the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty. 

Meanwhile, Japan is set to dramatically expand military cooperation with the Philippines under a new Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which is expected to be signed shortly after the trilateral summit in Washington. 

Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez recently confirmed news of the pact, which has been under negotiation for several years across different Philippine governments.

In a statement, the Japanese foreign ministry hailed the soon-to-be-signed agreement as a crucial step towards enhancing “the interoperability of the troops,” but he added that “it is not true that we are discussing deploying the Self-Defense Forces in the Philippines.”

One thing that’s not clear is whether the Philippines will grant rotational access to Japanese troops in vital military bases. But America’s oldest allies in Asia are poised to rapidly expand joint drills and transfer of advanced weapons systems in the coming years. 

In response, China has accused the US and its regional allies of stoking tensions by building new military blocs. “Any defense cooperation between any countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said before the trilateral JAPHUS summit. “We oppose cobbling together exclusive groupings and stoking bloc confrontation in the region.”

China is also insisting that it’s the Philippines that has provoked tensions by violating an alleged “gentlemen’s agreement” under which Manila allegedly promised not to expand resupply missions and/or fortify its military detachment in the Second Thomas Shoal.

The Philippines has denied the existence of any such non-binding agreement. And Marcos has made it clear he would rescind any such non-binding pact if his pro-Beijing predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had indeed agreed to such an arrangement.

For China, however, the biggest concern is not only the prospect of more direct involvement by America in the South China Sea disputes – namely, joint Philippine-US resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal – but also the prospect of an expanded US-Japanese military footprint in northernmost Philippine bases, which are close to Taiwan’s shores.

It’s no wonder, then, that all eyes are on the upcoming confab in the White House and what exact deals will be negotiated among the three allies.


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