Philippines, US step up alliance as China threat looms

Pia Lee-Brago - The Philippine Star
Philippines, US step up alliance as China threat looms
President Marcos joins US business leaders during the Philippines-US Business Forum in Washington, where he outlined initiatives aimed at enhancing economic cooperation in sectors such as infrastructure, semiconductors, clean energy and agriculture.
STAR / File

Philippines determined to assert sovereign rights

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Friday assured the Philippines anew that the US commitment to the country’s defense is steadfast amid increasing concerns about provocative Chinese actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

A day after US President Joe Biden convened a trilateral summit involving himself, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Marcos, the US and Philippine foreign and defense ministers and national security advisers met to discuss strategic and military issues.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan hosted their Philippine counterparts at the State Department.

“Today’s meeting reflects the growing and deepening cooperation between our countries on a broad array of issues and of course our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, including in the South China Sea,” Blinken said in brief opening remarks.

“We very much welcome this opportunity to pursue that cooperation, that collaboration and of course we stand with the Philippines in our iron-clad defense commitments, including the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken added.

Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Enrique Manalo echoed those remarks.

“We attach a lot of importance to this meeting, especially in light of recent developments in the South China Sea, especially China’s escalation of its harassment,” he said. “We are determined to assert our sovereign rights, especially within our exclusive economic zone.”

Austin later hosted Marcos at the Pentagon, where they discussed ways to deepen military cooperation, including by increasing the frequency of joint patrols in the South China Sea.

Austin noted that the Pentagon’s budget request for 2025 includes $128 million for 36 projects at Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites, which would more than double the amount it has invested since the program began 10 years ago.

“This visit here to the Pentagon reaffirms once again the strength of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines in the face of all of the threats and challenges that we have had to face together,” Marcos said, adding that he hoped the agreements reached “will make the safety, the peace and the stability of the South China Sea a reality.”

On Thursday at the summit, Biden said the US treaty obligations to its Pacific allies, like Japan and the Philippines, were “ironclad.”

“Any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty,” Biden said.

The White House billed the first trilateral summit with Japan and the Philippines as a potent response to China’s attempts at “intimidation” and said it would send a message that China is “the outlier in the neighborhood,” according to an administration official.

The US and the Philippines have had a mutual treaty in place for more than 70 years. Biden’s vigorous reinforcement of the American commitment comes in the midst of persistent skirmishes between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards in the disputed South China Sea.

Sovereign rights

The Philippines is determined to assert its sovereign rights in the South China Sea, Manalo said on Friday at a meeting with US allies to show support for the Philippines over an increasingly fraught standoff with China in the strategic waterway.

Speaking at the US State Department, Manalo accused China of “escalation of its harassment” of the Philippines, while Austin said Washington stood with Manila against what he described as “coercion.”

The officials spoke at a meeting between US and Philippines defense and foreign secretaries and their national security advisers, a day after leaders of the US, Japan and the Philippines met at the White House to push back against Beijing’s increased pressure on Manila.

“We are determined to assert our sovereign rights, especially within our exclusive economic zone,” Manalo said. He said he hoped Friday’s meeting would allow Washington and the Philippines to better coordinate their responses on the diplomatic and defense and security fronts.

“We’re working in lockstep ... to strengthen interoperability between our forces, to expand our operational coordination and to stand up to coercion in the South China Sea,” Austin stated.

Two prominent US senators this week introduced a bipartisan bill to provide the Philippines with $2.5 billion over five years, funding needed to modernize the US ally’s long-neglected armed forces.

In a series of Washington summits this week, the allied leaders unveiled a wide range of pacts to boost security and economic ties in the face of China’s growing might.

Earlier on Friday, China summoned Japanese and Philippine diplomats to express strong dissatisfaction over negative comments about it aired during Thursday’s trilateral summit.

Gregory Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the summit between President Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida and President Marcos was part of “a steady drumbeat of support for the Philippines.”

“That has included strengthening the US alliance to deter China from using military force and building up the capacity of the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to maintain access to its waters despite China’s coercion,” Poling said.

AFP modernization

The United States has vowed to increase its support for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to improve interoperability and achieve shared security objectives at the inaugural US-Philippines 3+3 Meeting.

Blinken, Austin and Sullivan met with Manalo, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and National Security Advisor Eduardo Año in Washington on April 12.

“The parties underscored their determination to increase US support for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to improve interoperability and to achieve our shared security objectives,” the joint statement on the meeting read.

The meeting followed Biden’s bilateral meeting with President Marcos and the first Japan-Philippines-United States Trilateral Leaders’ Summit on April 11.

“The parties further decided to explore additional opportunities to strengthen global support for upholding the international law of the sea,” the statement read.

The two sides reaffirmed their shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific and discussed ways to deepen coordination regarding shared challenges in the South China Sea, including repeated harassment of lawful Philippine operations by China.

The so-called “gray-zone” harassment by China has included shining military-grade lasers at the Philippine Coast Guard, firing water cannons at vessels and ramming into Philippine ships near the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, which both Manila and Beijing claim. In 1999, Manila intentionally ran a World War II-era ship aground on the shoal, establishing a permanent military presence there.

Chinese officials have bristled at criticism over their actions in the South China Sea and blamed the US for exacerbating tensions.

Spokeswoman Mao Ning of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Ayungin Shoal – a primary source of contention with the Philippines – as well as the Senkaku Islands and said its actions in the South and East China Seas are justified, lawful and beyond reproach.

“We firmly oppose relevant countries flexing muscles and acting like bullies in the South China Sea,” she said. “Relevant countries, out of selfish interests, join countries outside the region and serve as their pawns to contain China. Our message to these countries: recent history tells us that eventually pawns will easily be abandoned.”

Biden has made improving relations with the Philippines a priority since Marcos became the country’s president in June 2022. The relationship has had ups and downs over the years and was in a difficult place when Marcos took office.

Marcos said as a candidate that he would look to pursue closer ties with China. But he has increasingly drifted toward Washington amid concerns about China’s coercive actions.

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