Philippines, Japan, United States, and Australia agree to step up cooperation in South China Sea

The agreement will allow the countries to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

Frances Mangosing

Frances Mangosing

Philippine Daily Inquirer


Philippine coast guard personnel wave Japanese flags as the Japanese coast guard ship Akitsushima arrives at the international port in Manila on June 1, 2023, ahead of their joint maritime exercise with the US and Philippines. (Photo by TED ALJIBE / Agence France-Presse)

June 5, 2023

SINGAPORE — The defense chiefs of the Philippines, Japan, United States, and Australia have agreed during their first-ever quadrilateral talks to step up security cooperation especially in the South China Sea, in an effort to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific amid China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. met with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, and Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s top security summit, in Singapore on Saturday.

“It was an honor to meet with Secretary Galvez, Minister Hamada, and DPM Marles to discuss opportunities to expand cooperation across our four nations, including in the South China Sea,” Austin said in a tweet after the meeting. “We are united in our shared vision for advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In a statement, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said the four defense officials “discussed regional issues of common interest and opportunities to expand cooperation,” and vowed to continue to boost cooperation with allies and like-minded countries.

More than 600 delegates from 49 countries participated in Asia’s premiere security gathering during the weekend, where defense and military officials had the chance to hold closed-door bilateral and multilateral meetings.

During the plenary session, Galvez said they explored the possibility of expanding the joint Philippine and US military exercise called “Balikatan” into a multilateral exercise with allies.

The three-week Balikatan in April was the biggest yet, with nearly 18,000 participating Filipino and American troops. Australia deployed small contingents while Japan and other like-minded countries had sent observers in the past.

Maritime security
Galvez said the Philippines was also looking forward to having a reciprocal access agreement, which would pave the way for Japanese troops to conduct large-scale military exercises in the country.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Andres Centino also organized a meeting with US Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) Chief Adm. John Aquilino and Japan Joint Staff chief Yoshihide Yoshida on the sidelines of the summit, as they discussed the importance of expanding multilateral activities and the significant potential of enhancing trilateral cooperation, particularly on maritime security.

The three officials highlighted the importance of “increasing defense capabilities and mutual security cooperation” to benefit the region, according to an Indopacom statement.

‘Unwilling to engage’
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Austin criticized China for causing a deadlock among superpowers over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea by refusing to hold military talks.

He said this reluctance by Beijing undermined efforts to maintain peace in a region where the two rivals are increasing their military firepower.

“I am deeply concerned that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries,” Austin told the meeting in Singapore. “The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.”

But a ranking Chinese military official, Lt. Gen. Jing Jianfeng, countered that the United States was responsible for a breakdown in dialogue by ramping up sanctions on Chinese officials and destabilizing the Asia-Pacific with its military presence.

“China attaches importance to developing China-US military relations, and our interactions and communication have never been suspended,” Jing said.

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