Biden assures Japan and Philippines of US support in the face of 'intimidation' by China

US President hosted a three-way summit with leaders on Thursday amid territorial disputes with Beijing

US President Joe Biden escorts Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, left, and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to their White House summit. Reuters
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President Joe Biden said the America's defence commitment to Pacific allies was “ironclad”, as he held talks with the leaders of the Philippines and Japan at the White House on Thursday.

The meeting came amid growing concern about China's provocative military action in the Indo-Pacific.

The US and the Philippines have had a mutual treaty in place for more than 70 years. Mr Biden's forceful reinforcement of the American commitment comes in the midst of persistent skirmishes between the Philippine and Chinese coastguards in the disputed South China Sea.

“The United States defence commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad. They’re ironclad,” Mr Biden said as he began three-way talks at the White House with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“As I said before, any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defence treaty.”

Relations between China and the Philippines have been repeatedly tested by confrontations involving the nations’ coastguard vessels in the disputed South China Sea.

Chinese coastguard ships also regularly approach disputed Japanese-controlled East China Sea islands near Taiwan.

The so-called “grey zone” harassment by China has included shining military-grade lasers at the Philippine Coast Guard, firing water cannon at vessels and ramming into Philippine ships near the Second Thomas Shoal, which both Manila and Beijing claim.

In 1999, Manila intentionally ran a Second World War-era ship aground on the shoal, establishing a permanent military presence there.

Mr Biden, in a wide-ranging phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week, raised concerns about China’s operations in the South China Sea, including efforts to impede the Philippines from resupplying its forces on the Second Thomas Shoal.

Chinese officials have bristled at criticism over their action in the South China Sea and blamed the US for exacerbating tensions.

“No one should violate China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and China remains steadfast in safeguarding our lawful rights,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Thursday.

The White House billed the first-ever 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 neighbourhood”, according to an administration official.

Washington said Mr Biden and Mr Marcos during the talks “underscored their commitment to international law in the South China Sea” and reaffirmed their countries' treaty obligations to defend each other.

"Today’s summit is an opportunity to define the future that we want, and how we intend to achieve it together," Mr Marcos said.
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr

The leaders also announced joint patrols in the Indo-Pacific this year, a follow-up on law enforcement drills carried out last year by the allies in waters near the South China Sea. The US Coast Guard will welcome Philippine and Japanese coastguard members on to one of its vessels during the patrol for training, according to White House.

The summit followed Mr Biden's one-on-one talks and state dinner at the White House for the Japanese premier on Wednesday, a diplomatic honour meant to recognise Tokyo's growing clout on the global stage.

White House officials said they were aiming to send a clear signal that the Democratic administration remains determined to build what it calls a “latticework” of alliances in the Indo-Pacific even as it grapples with the Israel-Hamas war and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Mr Biden also hosted Mr Marcos for a private meeting at the White House ahead of the three-way talks.

“Today’s summit is an opportunity to define the future that we want, and how we intend to achieve it together,” Mr Marcos said.

Mr Biden also announced that the three nations were launching a new economic corridor in the Philippines as part of the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment that would help develop clean energy, port, agriculture and other projects in the country. He said the leaders were forging a “new era” and predicted “a great deal of history in our world will be written in the Indo-Pacific in the coming years.”

The US, the UK and Japan on Wednesday announced joint military exercises in the Indo-Pacific in 2025. That followed the Pentagon revealing earlier this week that the US, the UK and Australia were considering including Japan in the Aukus partnership, a grouping launched in 2021 that aims to equip Australia with nuclear-powered and conventionally armed submarines.

Mr Kishida visited Capitol Hill on Thursday for an address to American legislators that focused on the need to strengthen the partnership between the US and Japan at a time of tension in the Asia-Pacific and scepticism in Congress about US involvement abroad. He expressed concern about “the undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be”.

Mr Biden has made improving relations with the Philippines a priority since Mr 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 Mr Marcos took office. Human rights groups said Mr Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte's “war on drugs” resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.

Mr 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 towards Washington amid concerns about China’s actions.

Mr Biden hosted him for talks at the White House last year, the first Washington visit by a Philippine president in more than a decade. The US President also met him on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly soon after Mr Marcos took office, and sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Manila in 2022 to meet him.

Last year, the Philippines agreed to give the US access to four more bases on the archipelago.

Updated: April 12, 2024, 8:43 AM