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President Biden convened the historical 3-way summit at Camp David between the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Likewise, Biden held the first-ever US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit on April 11 with his counterparts Kishida Fumio and Marcos Jr. This represents a key diplomatic milestone. The three leaders hailed the meeting as “historic” as they gathered around a horseshoe-shaped wooden table in the grand East Room of the US presidential residence amidst escalating tensions with – China.

The political engagement at the highest level through these summits highlights Biden’s priority and dedication to the Asia-Pacific region.

It also reveals the significant focus on the US Indo-Pacific strategy and the US effort to maintain military and security cooperation with its allies & partners. Presently, the Asia-Pacific region has evolved into a geopolitical hotspot and a focal point of global attention. In light of this, the US, through these summits, tried to portray its engagement with the regional countries, particularly its alliance system, as the bedrock of peace and democracy in the region. The Biden administration has also leveraged the China threat theory and positioned itself as the region’s protector.

The US and allies interests converge when it comes to China. Despite their different motivations, they rely and depend on each other’s assistance to achieve their goals. The US, under the Biden administration, has pursued a hardline and hawkish approach towards China to date. The US has a political consensus that China is a strategic competitor that needs to be contained.

As it believes China is the only power capable of opposing US hegemony and influence. In line with this approach, the Biden administration has pursued a zero-sum policy to maintain and ensure the US global preeminence. The number of anti-China initiatives and these summits have further cemented and solidified the perception that Biden has followed a strategy intended to restrict and contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. To realize this goal, the US has granted Japan a pivotal role.

Japan, as a close ally of the US, has its own unique reasons for being concerned about China’s rising power and influence. The pivotal shifts in the power balance within the Asia-Pacific and noteworthy developments have shaped Japan’s policy options.

The trio of documents released by Japan back on 16th December 2022, that include National Security Strategy (NSS) and two related documents, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP) acknowledged the changing regional landscape and influenced Japan’s defense and security posture.

Moreover, Japan is worried and exposed to cooperation between Russia, China, and North Korea. The regional and global developments like Russia’s war against Ukraine, security links between Russia and North Korea, North Korea’s missile launches, and evolving Sino-Russian strategic relations visible through joint aerial and maritime patrols and exercises are constant sources of anxiety.

Additionally, China’s military activity near Taiwan, claims over the Sankaku/Diaoyu islands, and China’s military budget fueled Japan’s strategic concerns. These regional realities and the influence of China pushed the US and Japan towards a tight embrace. China factor has also played a significant role in accelerating close cooperation between the US and the Philippines. Recently, the Philippines has been under the geopolitical spotlight and faces growing pressure from China.

This is directly tied to the ongoing Sino-US strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region. The Philippines is an important country for both the US and China. Political analysts have rightly pointed out that the Philippines may act as a major irritant for Beijing’s regional dominance or a stepping stone. Likewise, it might offer the US a chance to maintain its continued presence in the South China Sea or act as a barrier to advance its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

However, given the prevailing conditions, the Philippines finds it difficult to manage its relationship with both great powers. On one hand, it has alliances and cultural links with the sole superpower. Conversely, it shares geographical proximity and economic linkage that compel it to seek a harmonious coexistence with the regional dominant military and economic power of China. However, under the current president Marcos Jr the Philippines inched closer to the US. The number of escalatory incidents at sea has influenced this shift. It is important to highlight that certain aggressive moves by China in the South China Sea allowed the US to present itself as a bulwark against Chinese pressure.

The South China Sea is the bone of contention between the Philippines and China. It is a potential flashpoint that may even trigger an open confrontation between the US and China.

The media reported many incidents like the use of water cannons by the Chinese Coast Guard against the Philippines Coast Guard, the use of military-grade lasers, and even the collision between the Chinese and the Philippines Coast Guard in the South China Sea. These regular face-offs seriously eroded the trust and damaged the bilateral relationship. The two sides attempted to pin blame on the other side by issuing diplomatic protests and publishing videos and pictures to back up their claims.

This also generated a wave of negative sentiments towards each other and may affect the ongoing South China Sea code of conduct talks. In that context, the trilateral summit was planned to reduce Chinese pressure and to reassure Manila that Biden’s commitment under the Mutual Defense Treaty is “Ironclad.”

Amidst recent maritime run-ins, the US and Japan voiced support for the Philippines’ plans to modernize its military capabilities. They condemned dangerous maneuvers in the South China Sea by China. The US and Japan announced concrete steps to support maritime capacity in response. These measures involve 1) a trilateral coast guard exercise in Philippines waters, 2) Tokyo and Manila joining a US Coast Guard vessel that will be patrolling the Asia-Pacific region for the first time this year, 3) the establishment of a trilateral maritime dialogue to enhance coordination and collective responses, 4) the US added Philippines Coast guard in Manila’s Mutual Defense Treaty and reiterated that if the Philippines coast guard or military forces were attacked anywhere in the South China Sea, it would defend the country.

This sends a clear signal to China and is important in the current regional environment. Additionally, the Biden administration is leading efforts to promote greater cooperation among its allies to pose a unified response to China’s expanding power and influence. This is apparent from the first-ever 4-way exercise involving Quad powers, excluding India. Besides this, the Philippines and Japan are working towards a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA). It is expected to be concluded this year.

It would increase “Operational Efficiency” between the two states armed forces. It will also reinforce the Philippines existing ‘Visiting Forces Agreements (VFA)’ with Australia and the US.

These initiatives will contribute positively to the effectiveness of the US Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering and opposing China. As expected, the Chinese side strongly opposed the trilateral summit in Washington. Chinese experts called it an “anti-China gathering” and a step towards forming a “mini-NATO” in the Asia-Pacific region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning cautioned the three states saying “Beijing firmly opposes the relevant countries manipulating bloc politics, and firmly opposes any behavior that provokes or lays plans for the opposition, and hurts other countries’ strategic security and interests”. She added “We firmly oppose engaging in closed cliques that exclude others in the region”. She also termed Chinese actions in the South China Sea as “appropriate” and “lawful”.

Furthermore, it is important to highlight that China is the least flexible when it comes to its territorial claims. It is not willing to employ force, except for the South China Sea and Taiwan. Therefore, in the current geopolitically highly charged environment, it is anticipated that sustainable peace in Asia-Pacific is a distant reality.

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