Philippines to Hold Joint Maritime Patrols With US, Japan

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Philippines to Hold Joint Maritime Patrols With US, Japan

The announcement of the joint South China Sea maneuvers is expected to be announced at a trilateral summit between the three nations next week.

Philippines to Hold Joint Maritime Patrols With US, Japan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, March 19, 2024.

Credit: X/Antony Blinken

The Philippines is set to launch joint naval patrols in the South China Sea with Japan and the United States later this year, in a bid to counter China’s increasingly assertive behavior in disputed waters.

The news was reported on Friday by the U.S.-based outlet Politico, which cited “a U.S. official and a foreign diplomat familiar with the planning.” According to these sources, the trilateral naval patrols are among the initiatives that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., U.S. President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will announce at a trilateral summit next month.

The meeting, which will be held in Washington on April 11, is the first ever trilateral summit between the three nations. According to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden, Kishida, and Marcos “will discuss trilateral cooperation to promote inclusive economic growth and emerging technologies, advance clean energy supply chains and climate cooperation, and further peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and around the world.” Japanese media outlets have since confirmed the involvement of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force in joint patrols.

According to some media reports, the summit will see the three nations deepen their security cooperation writ large, raising it to the level of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, which held a trilateral summit of their own at Camp David last August. The three countries said that they were “determined to align our collective efforts” to advance “the security and prosperity of all our people, the region, and the world.”

The growing security cooperation, of which joint maritime patrols will be perhaps the most visible aspect, is an obvious response to the growing tension in the South China Sea, where Beijing has increased both the frequency and intensity of its incursions into contested areas over the past 18 months, particularly those claimed by the Philippines. These have resulted in a series of dangerous high-seas encounters, including, most recently, the China Coast Guard (CCG)’s ramming of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel seeking to resupply forces stationed on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The incident also saw the CCG fire water cannons at one of the supply vessels, smashing its windshield and injuring four navy personnel.

Indeed, Second Thomas Shoal has been a particular target of Chinese “gray zone” operations, with the CCG now routinely harassing the Philippines’ regular resupply missions to the shoal, where its troops are stationed in a grounded warship.

The advent of the Marcos administration in mid-2022, and the increased tension in the South China Sea, have prompted both Washington and Tokyo to deepen their defense cooperation with the Philippines. The U.S. began joint patrols with the Philippines late last year, and has since held several of them, while reports of possible Japanese involvement in these patrols have swirled for some time. The U.S. has also negotiated access to an expanded roster of Philippine military facilities under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, while Japan and the Philippines are reportedly in the process of brokering a similar reciprocal access agreement.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director of the National Security Council, said last month that “many countries” have expressed interest in joining Manila in patrolling contested waters. Australia has also held joint patrols with the Philippines.

As can be expected, the Chinese state media has not reacted positively to the growing coordination and collaboration between the three nations. In an article on March 31, the Global Times stated that Japan’s alliance with the U.S. was “evolving into an axis of evil,” and that the U.S. was “encouraging the Philippines to incite chaos in the South China Sea.”

However, as sure as every action has a reaction, the growing trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines is a logical outgrowth of the Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The concern is that this draws a counter-reaction from Beijing, increasing the chances that a high-seas incident will stray across the line into open conflict.