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What Did the Philippines Achieve From Its Trilateral Summit with U.S. and Japan?

May 02, 2024

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Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met for their first trilateral summit at the White House on April 11.

United States President Joe Biden recently hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for a historic trilateral leaders’ summit. Here are some key takeaways from the meeting: 

First, the meeting locked Manila in the growing network of U.S.-led mini-laterals such as the Quad and AUKUS. These configurations revitalize and expand Cold War-era alliances, especially within the so-called First Island Chain, shaping the region’s security architecture. While the previous Philippine government expressed concerns over such formations, the current Marcos administration is now all in, showing the country’s evolving attitudes towards such groupings. In fact, the new Philippines-U.S.-Japan trilateral adds up to that growing constellation. The U.S. leverages these networks in its strategic competition with China, and deterring Beijing is a major motive behind them. 

Second, the tripartite summit also helped future-proof allied support to Philippine security and economics. Of the three leaders, Marcos, despite double-digit drops in his approval and trust rating in the first quarter, has the best chance to stick around until 2028. Biden will face former president Donald Trump in a high-stakes re-match in November, while Kishida remains unpopular at home with talks of a possible leadership change this year. Foreign policy has long been used to rally the flag to score domestic points and deflect attention from local woes. This logic was not lost in the high profile meeting. 

However, audiences and leaders can be easily distracted. Furthermore, financial and material backing to countries in a hot war (e.g., Ukraine, Israel) can neither be a blank check nor exempted from domestic political bickering. Hence, sustaining the attention of key partners on the South China Sea is vital for Manila, given the menu of global flashpoints from Ukraine and Gaza to the Taiwan Strait. The hope is that the commitment made during the meeting will weather the political maelstrom in Washington and Tokyo. 

Third, on the diplomatic front, the Philippines got American and Japanese support to push back against China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.” This includes Beijing’s coercive use of Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels and efforts to disrupt Manila’s offshore resource exploitation and resupply missions to its outpost in the Second Thomas Shoal, a site of recent risky run-ins. Washington and Tokyo endorsed the 2016 arbitration award, which affirmed the country’s sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and asked China to comply with the landmark ruling. The award determined that the shoal in contention lies within the country’s western EEZ. 

Fourth, on the security side, the summit reiterated allied backing to the country’s maritime capacity buildup. It noted Japan’s provision of 12 vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard with plans to provide five more. Last year, the coast guards of the three countries conducted their debut joint exercise and are gearing up to engage in at-sea drills next year. This year, the U.S. will invite Filipino and Japanese sailors to join a US Coast Guard ship on a patrol across the Indo-Pacific. A trilateral maritime dialogue was established. Curbing illegal fishing, maritime law enforcement training and support, maritime domain awareness, and disaster response are high on the agenda. A three-way humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise would be integrated into future trilateral and multilateral drills, including next year’s Balikatan iteration. More combined naval training and engagement are expected. Manila and Washington also encouraged Tokyo’s decision to ease restrictions on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, a development that could bode well in the country’s efforts to modernize its military and coast guard. 

The summit shows Manila closing ranks with the U.S. and Japan. Given China’s disdain for internationalizing the South China Sea row and the involvement of non-resident naval powers, the summit will likely stir fresh waves in turbulent waters, with disputants hardening their positions. Days before the summit, the navies of the Philippines, U.S., Japan, and Australia engaged in combined maritime exercises in the semi-enclosed sea. China undertook drills to coincide with the event and dispatched assets that tailed the allied activity. With more joint sails coming and China responding accordingly, the risk of accidents in the contested waterway rises. 

Fifth, on the economic side, the three countries launched the Luzon Economic Corridor, which would link Subic and Batangas with the capital, Manila, on the country’s main island. The underutilized Subic and Batangas ports can decongest Manila’s, and much available land in these economic hubs can entice locators. Along the way, the three sides will coordinate high-impact investments in infrastructure, clean energy, semiconductor supply chains, and agribusiness. This could be the country’s ploy to benefit from de-risking and allyshoring with foreign capital diversifying or expanding into Southeast Asia. It could also be a means to mitigate lost economic largesse from China as maritime tensions boil. The country is now looking at the U.S. and Japan as alternative partners in building the Subic-Clark cargo railway previously discussed with China. The cargo line will connect two former U.S. bases that have since become bustling special economic zones in central Luzon. 

The stakes for the trilateral economic game are high. It is one thing to block Chinese investment in strategic sectors or sensitive locations on national security grounds, but itis another to offer viable alternatives. This is especially so as Chinese capital and infrastructure transform the economies and spur connectivity in the country’s neighbors, including fellow South China Sea littoral states like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In 2022, U.S. private equity firm Cerberus foiled Chinese interest in acquiring the insolvent Hanjin shipyard in Subic. Still, it has yet to restore the facility to its glory days when it propelled the country to become the world’s largest shipbuilding nation. The trilateral group’s promotion of nuclear energy is set against China’s growing dominance in solar and wind energy. 

The trilateral portends Manila to lean heavily on the U.S. and Japan in everything from secured communications, critical minerals processing, renewable energy, and semiconductor investments. Failure to deliver can undermine America’s appeal to its loyal ally and the broader region. If played right, the Philippines can be a showcase for resilience and an alternative to Chinese-dependent supply chains. However, a misjudgment can setback the country’s development and competitiveness. 

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