Home|[in] focus|The U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit: will it counter Beijing’s assertiveness in South China Sea?
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by Kenny Dlamini

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Categories: [in] focus

by Kenny Dlamini

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On the 11th April 2024, the United States (US) hosted the first ever trilateral summit between the U.S, Japan and Philippines in Washington. The summit was a response to the escalation of tension in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China. According to the U.S President Joe Biden, the trilateral meeting sought to reiterate the White House’s commitment to the defense of Japan and the Philippines in their separate territorial disputes with China.

Both Japan and the Philippines are in disputes with China regarding territorial sovereignty claims in the East and South China Sea. The Japan and China dispute over the ownership of a group of tiny, uninhabited islets and rocks in the East China Sea has been going for more than five decades, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China. The dispute became a proxy battlefield in the growing China-US great power competition in the Indo-Pacific region.  It is also the same with highly disputed claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea (SCS) between China and some of the Southeast Asian nations (Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia). The narrative describing the South China Sea conflict is that China is undermining the sovereignty of other claimant states in the disputed waters, threatening freedom of navigation and the rule of law championed by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While the SCS dispute is between China and some of the nations in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is at the forefront in locking horns with China. The tension in the SCS is also a concern for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional block. For many years ASEAN has avoided to be directly involved in resolving the dispute other than to urge the rival claimants to engage in peaceful dialogue. ASEAN’s position has been criticized for its failure to directly condemn China’s actions despite the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea reaffirmed by both China and ASEAN. With no guaranteed or permanent commitment from ASEAN to support its member states resolving the conflict with China, the Philippines has leaned on the support of the U.S. for many years, including Japan and Australia in the hope of confronting Beijing’s assertiveness in the contested and economically vital waterway.

Thus, the US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit was nothing more than a strategy to respond to China’s recent increasing activities in the disputed waters. In the joint vision statement of the summit, the leaders underscore their “nations unwavering commitment of freedom of navigation and overflight, also the importance of respecting the sovereign rights of states within their exclusive economic zones consistent with international law, as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”. In the same breath, they expressed their serious concerns about what they term ‘China’s dangerous and aggressive behavior in the SCS; the militarization of reclaimed features and unlawful maritime claims in the SCS; Beijing’s repeated obstruction of Philippines vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation; and call for China to abide by the ruling of the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal constituted under to UNCLOS on a case instituted by the Philippines regarding China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea.

Although in their joint vision statements the leaders did express concerns regarding the situation in the East China Sea, more emphasis was on the activities in the SCS, and that the U.S. and Japan will continue to support the Philippines Coast Guard capacity building. This includes the announcement of the establishment of a trilateral maritime dialogue to enhance coordination and collective responses to promote maritime cooperation. However, China views the Washington summit and its joint vision statement as nothing but an ‘anti-China’ summit with intentions of forming exclusive groupings in the region to stoke and drive up tensions, and harm other countries’ strategic security and interests. Beijing further mentions that while Japan and the Philippines have the right to develop normal relations with other countries, they should not introduce bloc confrontation into the region and engage in trilateral cooperation at the expense of other countries’ interests. China continues to maintain that the maritime tension in the SCS, can only be resolved by affected claimant states without the interference of non-claimant parties. Going forward, the impact and effectiveness of the trilateral summit in the SCS will be determined through its practical response as the tension continues to flare up in the SCS.

 

Mr. Kenny Dlamini has a Masters degree in Diplomatic Studies from University of Pretoria, an honours degree in political and international studies from Rhodes University. He is currently a research officer at the Institute for Global Dialogue. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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