US and Philippines step up strategic partnership as China threats loom in South China Sea

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, second from left, speaks during a bilateral meeting with Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, second from right, at Department of State in Washington, Friday April 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Friday reassured the Philippines anew that the U.S. commitment to the country's defense is steadfast amid increasing concerns about provocative Chinese actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

A day after President Joe Biden convened a trilateral summit involving himself, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the U.S. and Filipino foreign and defense ministers and national security advisers met to discuss strategic and military issues.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan hosted their Philippine counterparts at the State Department.

“Today’s meeting reflects the growing and deepening cooperation between our countries on a broad array of issues and of course our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, including in the South China Sea,” Blinken said in brief opening remarks. “We very much welcome this opportunity to pursue that cooperation, that collaboration and of course we stand with the Philippines in our iron-clad defense commitments including the Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo echoed those remarks. “We attach a lot of importance to this meeting especially in light of recent developments in the South China Sea, especially China’s escalation of its harassment,” he said. "We are determined to assert our sovereign rights, especially within our exclusive economic zone.”

Austin later hosted Marcos at the Pentagon, where they discussed ways to deepen military cooperation, including by increasing the frequency of joint patrols in the South China Sea. Austin noted that the Pentagon’s budget request for 2025 includes $128 million for 36 projects at Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites, which would more than double the amount it has invested since the program began 10 years ago.

“This visit here to the Pentagon reaffirms once again the strength of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines in the face of all of the threats and challenges that we have had to face together,” Marcos said. He said he hoped the agreements reached Thursday “will make the safety, the peace and the stability of the South China Sea a reality.”

On Thursday at the summit, Biden said the U.S. treaty obligations to its Pacific allies, like Japan and the Philippines, were “ironclad.” “Any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty,” Biden said.

The White House billed the first trilateral summit with Japan and the Philippines as a potent response to China’s attempts at “intimidation” and said it would send a message that China is “the outlier in the neighborhood,” according to an administration official.

The U.S. and the Philippines have had a mutual treaty in place for more than 70 years. Biden’s vigorous reinforcement of the American commitment comes in the midst of persistent skirmishes between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards in the disputed South China Sea.

Relations between China and the Philippines have been repeatedly tested by confrontations involving the two nations’ coast guard vessels there. Chinese coast guard ships also regularly approach disputed Japanese-controlled East China Sea islands near Taiwan.

The so-called “gray-zone” harassment by China has included shining military-grade lasers at the Philippine Coast Guard, firing water cannons at vessels and ramming into Philippine ships near the Second Thomas Shoal, which both Manila and Beijing claim. In 1999, Manila intentionally ran a World War II–era ship aground on the shoal, establishing a permanent military presence there.

Chinese officials have bristled at criticism over their actions in the South China Sea and blamed the U.S. for exacerbating tensions.

Spokeswoman Mao Ning of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Second Thomas Shoal — a primary source of contention with the Philippines — as well as the Senkaku Islands and said its actions in the South and East China Seas are justified, lawful and beyond reproach.

“We firmly oppose relevant countries flexing muscles and acting like bullies in the South China Sea,” she said. “Relevant countries, out of selfish interests, join countries outside the region and serve as their pawns to contain China. Our message to these countries: recent history tells us that eventually pawns will easily be abandoned.”

Biden, a Democrat, has made improving relations with the Philippines a priority since Marcos became the country’s president in June 2022. The relationship has had ups and downs over the years and was in a difficult place when Marcos took office. Human rights groups said Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.

Marcos, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, said as a candidate he would look to pursue closer ties with China. But he has increasingly drifted toward Washington amid concerns about China’s coercive action.

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