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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Washington trilateral summit

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THIS Friday (Philippine time), US President Joe Biden will host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in a White House summit intended to reinforce trilateral maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.

This is a first-of-their kind meetings by the United States and its two Asian allies, seen by diplomatic and defense analysts as Biden’s strategy to stitch together existing bilateral alliances into broader “mini-laterals” to amplify US influence in Asia.

The summit, seen as a substantial move to counter Beijing, comes at a time of increasing tension in the western Pacific including the strategic South China Sea.

Just last Sunday, six warships and aircraft from the United States and its allies the Philippines, Japan and Australia held a joint patrol following Chinese harassment of Philippine Navy resupply missions in the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the waters has been widely seen as the impelling force for the one-day exercise.

Under its upgraded ten-dash line, Beijing maintains a claim to some 90 percent of the resource-rich South China Sea — through which trillions of dollars in trade flow every year – despite overlapping claims with Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels were detected from a “distance” during the allies’ multilateral maritime cooperative activity in the West Philippine Sea which included communication exercises, division tactics or officer of the watch maneuvers.

The Friday summit focuses on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Last year, Biden hosted a similar meeting with Japan and South Korea to deal with the threat from North Korea.

Manila itself is keen to firm up trilateral maritime cooperation, namely plans for joint naval patrols by the three countries, a move that would likely trigger a strong reaction from Beijing.

“Joint patrols are something that we’ve already discussed extensively with Japan and the United States,” Philippines Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez had told reporters.

Observers see tensions in the South China Sea are not going away, an issue raised in Biden’s call with China President Xi Jinping earlier on.

Pentagon press secretary Pat Ryder, while declining to confirm the agenda, was reported to have said the goal of trilateral efforts in the South China Sea is to “ensure the Indo-Pacific region remains free, it remains open and that there is security and stability throughout the region.”

Since 1999, Philippine soldiers have guarded a wrecked ship left on the shoal to maintain the country’s sovereignty claims over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is a US ally under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which means clashes between Manila and Beijing in the Spratlys are a problem for Washington.

The summit is being watched from Manila, Tokyo, Beijing and other regional capitals.

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