Exclusive-Japan, Australia allowed to join US, Philippines in patrolling South China Sea – Ambassador
The Philippines is in talks to include Australia and Japan in planned joint South China Sea patrols with the United States, a senior diplomat said on Monday, another sign of concern over Beijing’s actions in the strategic waters.
“Agreements have already been made and probably the Japanese and Australians will join,” Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez told Reuters.
“They are keen to participate in joint patrols to ensure compliance with the code of conduct and freedom of navigation,” he said, adding that it was still an “idea under discussion”.
If the plan goes through, it would be the first time the Philippines would join a multilateral maritime patrol in the South China Sea, which would anger Beijing, which claims much of the sea as its territory.
The foreign ministries of Australia and Japan and the US and Chinese embassies in Manila did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment.
The patrol talks and renewed engagement with the United States underscore how much Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has aligned his country with its historic ally. China.
Australia and the US have separately discussed joint patrols with the Philippines amid concerns about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, through which $3.4 trillion in annual trade flows.
The United States, Japan and Australia have conducted trilateral naval exercises and joint patrols with those countries are “good for the Philippines and the whole region,” Romualdez said, adding, “We want freedom of navigation.”
These are our partners
The patrols “could be country-by-country initially” and eventually expanded because these are our allies, like-minded countries,” he said.
The prospect of the four countries joining together to patrol the sea would send a unified message to China, which regularly has hundreds of ships in the South China Sea to back up its claims.
Some Southeast Asian neighbors accuse China of using its coast guard and maritime militia to harass their fishermen and disrupt reclamation projects and energy exploration. China insists on protecting its historical territory.
“For the Philippines, it gives us an alternative partner to counter China alongside the United States,” Rommel Jude Ong, a former deputy commander of the Philippine Navy, said of the patrols’ prospect.
“Whether we like it or not, we have to coordinate our activities with the United States to ensure that we don’t interfere in issues that are only between the United States and China.”
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said last week that he wanted to expand his bilateral security relationship with the Philippines, and joint patrols were the “next step”.
Japan, Australia and the United States are among dozens of countries that recognize a landmark arbitration case won by the Philippines in 2016, which rejected China’s expansive territorial claim.
Beijing did not recognize the ruling. It says it respects freedom of navigation but opposes actions that undermine its sovereignty.
Along with several maritime claims, the Philippines has stepped up rhetoric to challenge what it calls illegal Chinese activities in its exclusive economic zone.
Since taking office in June last year, Marcos has filed 77 complaints with China. This month, he summoned the Chinese ambassador, worried about “aggressive” Chinese activities in the sea.
“Washington is pleased that the Philippines is taking a strong stand on its territorial rights,” said Ambassador Romualdez, who is associated with Marcos.
The move is a sharp departure from predecessor Duterte’s open contempt for the US and its efforts to appease China. Duterte has been widely criticized for his reluctance to pressure China to comply with the arbitration ruling, fearing it could hurt investment.
Marcos on Monday described the South China Sea issue as “the most complex geopolitical situation in the world.”
“We do not have to worry about these threats and the intensity of competition between the great powers,” he said in a speech to military officials.
Earlier this month, Marcos granted the United States greater access to Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, adding four more to the existing five.
EDCA allows US access to Philippine bases for joint training, reserving equipment, and constructing facilities such as airstrips, fuel storage, and military housing, but not a permanent presence.
Romualdez, who served as ambassador under Duterte, said recent developments show that “the relationship between the United States and the Philippines is very good today.”
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