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Biden will meet with Philippine and Japanese leaders as worry grows over China’s Indo-Pacific action

By AAMER MADHANI, Associated Press
Published: April 11, 2024, 8:09am

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is meeting Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on Thursday as the three nations use their first-ever trilateral summit to try to show they are in lockstep about countering China’s military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

The leaders are expected to announce that their coast guards will hold a joint patrol in the Indo-Pacific this year, a follow-up on law enforcement drills carried out last year by the allies in waters near the disputed South China Sea. The U.S. Coast Guard will also welcome Filipino and Japanese coast guard members onto a U.S. Coast Guard vessel during the patrol for training, according to senior Biden administration officials who insisted on anonymity to preview the talks.

The summit comes a day after Biden held one-on-one talks with Kishida and feted the Japanese premier with a glitzy state dinner at the White House, a diplomatic honor meant to recognize Tokyo’s growing clout on the global stage. It was also designed 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 ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Biden also was hosting Marcos for a private meeting at the White House ahead of the scheduled three-way talks.

Biden on Wednesday reflected on the fact that Japan, once a fierce U.S. enemy, has become one of the closest American partners and an indispensable ally in a shared push for peace, security and prosperity in the Pacific and beyond.

“Just a few generations ago, our two nations were locked in a devastating conflict,” Biden said with Kishida by his side for a pomp-filled arrival ceremony at the White House. “It would have been easy to say we remain adversaries. Instead, we made a far better choice: We became the closest of friends.”

Thursday’s three-way summit will also have a large economic component with several major U.S.-based companies — including Meta, UPS and Greenbrier Energy — announcing investments in the Philippines, administration officials said. The new deals come after Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visited Manila last month to announce more than $1 billion in new investment by American companies in the Philippines.

The United States, the United Kingdom and Japan on Wednesday announced joint military exercises in the Indo-Pacific in 2025. That followed the Pentagon revealing earlier this week that the U.S., the U.K. 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.

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

Administration officials have acknowledged growing concern about provocative Chinese action in the Pacific, which will be a large focus of the leaders’ talks. The White House sees the summit as countering China’s attempts at “intimidation” and sending a message that China is “the outlier in the neighborhood,” according to an administration official.

Relations between China and the Philippines have been repeatedly tested by skirmishes involving the two nations’ coast guard vessels in the disputed South China Sea. 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 the World War II–era ship aground on the shoal, establishing a permanent military presence there.

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, which the U.S. is treaty-obligated to defend, from resupplying its forces on the Second Thomas Shoal.

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“The main intent of this trilateral agreement is for us to be able to continue to flourish, to be able to help one another, and … to keep the peace in the South China Sea and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Marcos told reporters before departing for Washington on Wednesday.

Chinese officials have bristled at criticism over their action in the South China Sea and blamed the U.S. 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 Thursday.

Biden 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, as a candidate said he would look to pursue closer ties with China. But he’s increasingly drifted toward Washington amid concerns about China’s coercive action.

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

Last year, the Philippines agreed to give the U.S. access to four more bases on the islands.