US showcases anti-China alliance with Japan/Philippines summit

Thursday’s three-way summit between President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is sending a message to China: You’re the odd man out.

The meeting, the first time the three leaders have convened, marks a more aggressive bid by the United States and its partners to isolate China as Beijing seeks to intimidate its neighbors in the South China Sea and beyond.

The move also bolsters one of the Biden administration’s main priorities — tightening ties with allies to counter Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, a so-called “overlapping latticework of mutually reinforcing partnerships” in the region, a senior administration official told reporters in a call Wednesday afternoon.

“President Marcos is coming under pressure from the [People’s Republic of China’s] aggressive tactics in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone,” the official said, referring to the waters around the country that butt up against the South China Sea, which China claims as its own territory.

“What you’ll see is a clear demonstration of support and resolve from both President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida, that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Marcos ready to support and work with the Philippines at every turn,” they said.

The official added that the summit will include further announcements of military and coast guard cooperation between the countries as well as with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Nick Szechenyi, the Japan chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told The Hill that the trilateral summit “is meant to initiate sort of a new chapter” between the three countries, with a focus on maritime security “to demonstrate to China that the U.S. and its allies will continue to resist attempts at coercion.”

The more the U.S. and its allies coordinate, “the more difficult it becomes for China to try to control the maritime domain,” he added.

Both Japan and the Philippines are U.S. defense treaty allies, meaning they both rely on protection from the U.S. in the face of provocations by China. As part of that agreement, the U.S. military keeps permanent bases in Japan and has base rights in the Philippines.

And Japan and the Philippines have their own set of issues with China, namely territorial disputes.

Tokyo is dealing with territorial claims of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which Beijing refers to as the Diaoyu Islands. Japan has controlled the area since 1895, but China has sought to claim the islands since the late 1970s. The self-ruled Taiwan also claims them, with multiple incidents having taken place around the disputed land.

In the waters around the Philippines, meanwhile, there has been increased Chinese harassment of vessels in the South China Sea, with a focus on Second Thomas Shoal.

The shallow waters, which sit about 125 miles off the Philippine island of Palawan, are home to a grounded, rusted World War II-era navy ship manned by Philippine marines, which Manila placed there in the 1990s to help stake its claim.

China disputes this claim and has sought to intervene with Philippine resupply efforts for its forces on the WWII ship, with Chinese coast guard ships firing water cannons at Manila’s vessels, injuring Filipino sailors.

Just last month, the Philippines contended that several of its seamen were injured when a Chinese ship sideswiped a smaller Philippine boat and another two of Beijing’s coast guard vessels used water cannons.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command head Adm. John Aquilino said Tuesday that he was “very, very concerned” about the Chinese aggression toward the Philippines

“These actions are dangerous, illegal and they are destabilizing the region,” Aquilino said, as reported by The Associated Press. “What’s next, and how far are they willing to go in that area?”

But Beijing’s aggression has only appeared to further link Biden, Kishida and Marcos, with the United States keen on keeping it that way.

The newly bolstered relationships were on display Sunday with the first-ever Multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. Naval warships and aircraft from the United States, Japan and the Philippines linked up with forces from Australia during the war game, held on the west side of the islands facing the South China Sea.

A senior administration official said to expect to see more of such drills in the months ahead, as well an upcoming coast guard joint patrol to take place in the coming year in the Indo-Pacific, building on the first trilateral U.S.-Japan-Philippine coast guard patrols held over the past year.

The U.S. Coast Guard will also welcome Philippines and Japan sailors onto American vessels during patrols this year to further train and synchronize the three nations, the official said.

Other announcements coming Thursday will deal with trilateral maritime training around Japan.

“The American alliance system has helped bring peace and stability to the Indo-Pacific for decades, and now we need to update and upgrade that alliance network for the modern age,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday.

“We’re continuing to deepen our cooperation with our closest partners to ensure what we’ve talked about many times from this podium and elsewhere: a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Ahead of the Thursday summit, Biden welcomed Kishida to Washington, D.C. — the first official visit by a Japanese Prime Minister in nine years — where the two agreed Wednesday to tighten military and economic ties to combat China.

The U.S. — which views Japan as critical to security in the region and able to contribute significantly to address conflicts on the global stage — announced plans to reinforce military cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, including a new three-way military drill with the United Kingdom and plans for how Japan could enter a U.S.-led coalition with Australia and New Zealand.

“This is the most significant upgrade of our alliance since it was first established,” Biden told reporters in the White House Rose Garden alongside Kishida on Wednesday.

Marcos will join the two Thursday, his second visit to Washington in just two years.

The new leader, who took office in June 2022, was an about-face from the pro-Beijing policies of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, a position that gained him a visit to the White House last May.

While there, Biden and Marcos touted their agreement to allow the U.S. military access to four more Philippine military bases in a deal known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

They also discussed and announced new bilateral defense guidelines meant to serve as a road map for how the two countries will face land, air, maritime, space and cyber threats as allies.

The agreements were a foreign policy win for the administration, as the archipelago nation is an ideal location from which the United States could counter a possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory. Beijing has increased war games around the island, seemingly in preparation for a future seizure.

Ahead of the three-way summit Thursday, Kishida told CNN he believes the historic meeting “will be a very valuable opportunity to demonstrate to the world how the three countries can work together for peace and stability in the region.”

Senior administration officials also said the White House will announce a set of new infrastructure projects with the Philippines known as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI) Luzon corridor. The first ever PGI corridor in the Indo-Pacific, it will connect the Clark Freeport Zone, a former U.S. air base on Luzon Island, as well as the capital of Manila and port city of Batangas “to accelerate coordinated investments in high impact infrastructure projects including port, rail, clean energy, semiconductor supply chains and other forms of connectivity in the Philippines.”

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