Next week’s U.S.-Philippines-Japan summit comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Manilla and Beijing in the South China Sea, known as the West Philippines Sea in the Philippines. Last month alone saw two incidents of China’s so-called “gray zone” activities, with Chinese ships colliding with Philippines Coast Guard vessels on March 5 and blasting a Philippines supply boat with a water cannon on March 23. These disputes in the West Philippines Sea — an issue on which U.S., Japanese and Philippine interests closely align — will feature prominently when President Joe Biden, Philippine President Ferdinando Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida meet in Washington on April 11.

Chinese Coast Guard and militia ships chase Philippine Coast Guard vessels escorting a resupply mission to its outpost in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Nov. 10, 2023. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)
Chinese Coast Guard and militia ships chase Philippine Coast Guard vessels escorting a resupply mission to its outpost in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Nov. 10, 2023. (Jes Aznar/The New York Times)

USIP’s Brian Harding, Haroro Ingram and Andrew Mines look at the upcoming trilateral summit and how all three countries are responding to China’s aggressive actions in the region.

It has been reported that one initiative that will be unveiled at the summit is joint patrols among the countries’ three navies in waters that China claims as its own. What impact could these joint patrols have in an already fragile region?

Ingram: China’s rhetorical response will predictably describe the joint patrols as not only aggressive and provocative but another example of a broader U.S.-driven conspiracy to drag its allies, and the region more broadly, into a state of chaos to selfishly advance U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Beijing will present itself as the benign actor — even the victim — that is merely seeking to protect its sovereignty and maintain a peaceful and stable region. The Chinese Communist Party will certainly unleash its ecosystem of messengers to amplify these talking points.

The reality is that China has launched incursions into the West Philippines Sea for years, built and militarized artificial islands, flaunted a landmark international ruling, and engaged in increasingly aggressive and dangerous actions against the Philippines. For example, on March 5, the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia engaged in maneuvering that resulted in collisions with the Philippines Coast Guard. Chinese water cannon assaults have really escalated tensions, with the most recent on March 23 severely damaging a Philippines supply boat and injuring some of the crew.

This context is important for two reasons. First, it reveals the blatant “gaslighting” strategy that underpins China’s rhetoric. Second, it highlights the volatility of the current situation in the West Philippines Sea. With this backdrop, it is hard to predict just how far China will be willing to engage in some combination of preventative or disruptive actions prior to the patrol, escalatory actions during the patrols and retributive actions after them. 

What are the three countries hoping to accomplish at next week’s summit?

Harding: One of the key components of the Biden administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has been the stitching together of bilateral alliances and partnerships into minilateral arrangements that have the potential to achieve results that large-scale multilateral cooperation in the region cannot. The first two movers were the dramatic deepening of the Quad — made up of the United States, Japan, Australia and India — and U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation. Now a new trilateral grouping of the United States, Japan and the Philippines has burst onto the scene.

Maritime security cooperation has featured prominently in previous trilateral meetings, with commitments to expand exercises and reciprocal access to bases. The expected announcement of joint naval patrols follows the first trilateral Coast Guard exercise in June 2023. These moves reflect a common assessment that deeper security cooperation between allies will deter China and enhance regional security.

Kishida’s visit has been long in the planning and will have numerous bilateral components including a speech to Congress. The visit is important for the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is at the center of the administration’s regional strategy and part of each of the key new minilateral groupings. Kishida’s visit follows state visits by the other members of the Quad. Kishida, whose domestic popularity is low, will be seeking to boost his favorability at home through the visit in addition to strengthening the alliance.

Marcos’ invitation was a relatively last-minute decision and reflects the momentum in U.S.-Philippines, Philippines-Japan and overall trilateral relations. Marcos has turned Philippines foreign policy on its head since taking over from former President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought to build ties with China and downgrade the alliance with the United States. The leaders of all three countries are now seeking to quickly institutionalize a new, coordinated approach to regional security.

Ingram: The Philippines sees its relationships with the United States and Japan as central to its foreign, economic and defense policy. But the Marcos administration correctly recognizes that it cannot solely rely on its two closest friends to deal with the challenges of the next decade. It will take an architecture of relationships, including with its closest geographic neighbors Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia, and of course regional and global powers like Australia, India and the Europe Union. 

There are a whole host of reasons why this will be important for the Philippines, but it is particularly important in light of China’s threats to its sovereignty. A core tenet of Beijing’s incrementalistic approach to maritime expansionism has been to isolate smaller nations and insist on bilateral resolutions. So, multilateral outreach is vital.

Mines: Beyond maritime security cooperation, next week’s summit will also focus on issues pertaining to cybersecurity, with the three countries expected to agree to a joint cyber defense framework. Cyberattacks from hackers linked to China, Russia and North Korea present a common security threat, and increased Chinese-linked cyberattacks targeting the Philippines have sounded familiar alarms in Washington and Tokyo.

Advancing economic cooperation will also be high on the agenda. Trade and investment, economic resiliency, infrastructure development and the Philippines’ rapidly growing digital economy are all expected to feature in discussions, as will efforts to strengthen supply chains for semiconductors, nickel and other critical minerals. The summit also provides the Philippines president the opportunity to showcase how the trilateral relationship is not solely about security issues, and to prove that his bold approach to foreign policy will also yield significant foreign investment. Just last month, the U.S. Presidential Trade and Investment Mission to the Philippines announced American companies’ investments in the Philippines worth more than $1 billion. In December 2023, Marcos announced his intentions to partner with Japan to increase the Philippines’ share in the multi-trillion-dollar annual global creative industries market and advance sustainability and innovation.

Next week’s summit is sure to highlight that for Manila, relations between the three countries run far deeper than security matters.

Beyond the joint patrols and summitry, how is the Philippines responding to the escalating tensions with China in these disputed waters?

Ingram: This year has been a particularly tense period in Philippines-China relations, intensifying after seven Philippines servicemembers were injured during Chinese attacks in March. After the Chinese Coast Guard’s March 23 water cannon assault, the Philippines saw no choice but to respond to this escalating aggression.

The most significant development so far has been Marcos’ signing of Executive Order 57, which establishes a National Maritime Council to unify and coordinate Philippine’s maritime security and domain awareness. This is part of a process that will see a revision of the countermeasures deployed by the Philippines Navy and Coast Guard. The international community has rallied to support the Philippines, at least rhetorically, in recent weeks.

The situation could also quickly and directly involve the United States due to the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which Washington has been clear would apply to an attack on Philippines vessels including its Coast Guard. Every month the Philippines must resupply its garrison on the Sierra Madre and so, every month, the risk of some type of incident in the West Philippine Sea is almost guaranteed. The Philippines needs the international community to do more than just offer reassuring words, especially if China’s actions continue to escalate.

Mines: In the face of China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, pressure is mounting from Philippine civil society on government leaders to match words with actions. Recent polls have shown 70 percent of Filipinos want to assert their nation’s territorial rights through peaceful and diplomatic means, but an even higher majority of 77 percent are ready to fight in a potential conflict.

As tensions continue to rise and China’s aggression increasingly risks triggering the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, Washington has consistently reaffirmed its “ironclad” commitment to Philippines security. What actions ultimately trigger that commitment, however, remain unclear, particularly given China’s incrementalist approach to testing its neighbors resolve and capabilities.      

The United States should be clear-eyed not just about how close its ally is to conflict, but also the limitations of what support Washington alone can lend. Even coupled with Japan as part of the emerging U.S.-Philippines-Japan trilateral relationship, joint exercises and expanded cooperation should be the new floor, not the ceiling. Washington should work humbly and methodically as Manila’s partner to rapidly expand the latticework of alliances committed to the international rules-based system while also carefully balancing engagement with China. In the broader Southeast Asia region, U.S. popularity and sway mostly lags behind what it is in the Philippines. Any engagement must be led by the Philippines with U.S. support if requested. If building support among larger multilateral groupings like ASEAN fails, smaller bilateral and minilateral relations like the Philippines-Vietnam relationship should advance. Other more established groupings involving the United States such as the Quad might consider close collaboration with the Philippines.

Outside the region, statements of support for the Philippines and the rules-based order have flooded in, particularly from European Union countries. Now, words must be met with action. The Philippines already welcomes deployments from several key EU countries through joint training, freedom of navigation operations and other mechanisms of cooperation. Over the last few months, the UK in particular has responded to increased Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea. Washington can and should support Manila, but ultimately it is the Philippines that is on the frontlines, and it is the Philippines that must lead.


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