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Law & Order: South China Sea Unit

What is happening?

On November 3 and 4, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the Philippines. He agreed with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to start negotiations on a reciprocal access agreement (RAA), which would enable both countries to carry out joint military drills on Philippine shores. Japan will also provide the Philippines with a coastal surveillance radar system by granting the Philippine Navy 600 million yen (5.4 million USD). This will be the very first cooperation project under Japan’s Official Security Assistance (OSA) program, which seeks to strengthen the deterrence capabilities of Tokyo’s allies. When addressing the Philippine congress in Manila, Kishida spoke about the trilateral cooperation between Japan, the Philippines, and the United States on protecting the freedom of the sea in the South China Sea. “Through these efforts, let us protect the maritime order, which is governed by laws and rules, not by force,” Kishida said. Even though he did not specify against whom they wanted to protect freedom, laws, and order, the answer is quite clear.


What is the broader picture?

Japan and the Philippines have been experiencing China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the Indo-Pacific waters. In the East China Sea, this year, Japan has registered more than 20 Chinese incursions into its territorial waters surrounding the uninhabited Senkaku Islands that China claims. In the South China Sea, the Philippines also had to deal with China’s aggressive behavior, as recent weeks have witnessed tense encounters between the Philippine and Chinese military and coast guard forces. In October, there was a collision because Chinese vessels blocked Philippine boats that were trying to supply forces in the disputed waters. China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, even though the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 denied the legal basis of such claims.

Unsurprisingly, China’s actions have brought Japan and the Philippines closer. They belong to the closest circle of U.S. allies in the region. In March, Japan observed military drills between the U.S. and the Philippines, and in June, the coast guards of the Philippines and Japan trained together for the first time. The coastal surveillance radars that Tokyo will provide to the Philippines will also enhance Manila’s security capabilities.


Why does it matter?

A growing number of encounters with China in the disputed waters is not the only issue that brings Japan and the Philippines closer. Both countries are also in close proximity to self-ruled democratic Taiwan, which China considers to be part of its territory and makes no secret of its readiness to annex it by force in the future. This action would significantly increase the security threat that China poses to both countries, not to mention that a potential U.S. involvement could also draw them into the conflict. Given its geographic location, the Philippines would play a critical strategic role in the case of Beijing’s armed aggression in the East and South China Seas and the possible conflict scenario between China and Taiwan.

China’s territorial claims and aggressive behavior are thus pushing the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines toward a closer trilateral security alliance. However, close cooperation is nothing new between these three. Through the ratification of the RAA, Japan would get military access to the Philippines that the U.S. already has, thanks to its own visiting forces agreement. Tokyo has also been helping Manila by aiding development projects and strengthening its civil maritime capabilities for decades.

This summer marked the strengthening of a trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. In the fall, we are witnessing the emergence of another trilateral alliance featuring the U.S. and Japan. Let’s see whether another triangle comes up while the winter is coming.