TOP foreign affairs and defense officials of the Philippines and the United States have agreed to “modernize” the two countries’ alliance amid the evolving security challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
The commitment was made during the third US-Philippines 2+2 ministerial meeting in Washington DC on Wednesday morning (Manila time), which was led by Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, Defense chief Carlito Galvez Jr. and their US counterparts Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III.
The secretaries agreed to continue discussions on the nature of threats that may arise in different domains in the region, including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, and how to effectively respond to them.
In addition, they reaffirmed “shared determination to defend against external armed attack in the Pacific, including the South China Sea.”
“At today’s meeting, we redoubled our commitment to modernizing the Philippine-US alliance, recognizing that our partnership will need to play a stronger role in preserving an international law-based international order,” Manalo said in the post-meeting presser.
“This means ensuring the conduct of high-level and high-impact, high-value joint exercises, training, and other related activities,” he added.
Some of the points discussed in the 2+2 are ways to expand cooperation and increase “strategic convergence” on counterterrorism and addressing gray zone challenges.
Gray zone activities, as defined by experts, are operations that fall below the threshold of what constitutes aggression to prevent a country from using self-defense.
In the West Philippine Sea, analysts said gray zone operations could include the deployment of maritime militia and fishing vessels in the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
JOINT SCS patrols
The four officials also agreed to finalize plans for the resumption of “joint sails” between the US and Philippine Navies while confirming the possibility to include “like-minded partners” in multilateral maritime activities in the South China Sea “later this year.”
No country was specifically mentioned but Australian Ambassador to the Philippines HK Yu last month had disclosed that “conversation on the joint patrols with the US, Philippines and Japan in international waters are ongoing”.
Asked for comment, the Australian Embassy in Manila on Wednesday said it notes the discussions between Manila and Washington DC, and only reiterated its “commitment to building effective security partnerships in our near region”.
“By training together, forces from the Philippines, United States and Australia can build upon shared tactics, techniques and procedures which enhance readiness and response capabilities during real-world challenges,” it said.
“Strong relationships are the foundation for responding to shared security challenges and Balikatan exercise provides a valuable opportunity for the Australian Defence Force to train with regional partners to enhance multinational interoperability and strengthen regional partnerships in a dynamic security environment,” it added.
The Japanese Embassy in Manila was also sought for comment but has yet to issue an official statement as of posting.
COVERT LAND RECLAMATION
In the same meeting, the four secretaries assailed alleged “covert” reclamation activities in some unoccupied features within the Spratlys.
The secretaries, in a joint statement, “noted with concern recent reports regarding further conduct of covert land reclamation on unoccupied features in the Spratly Islands and rejected the use of reclamation as a means of rationalizing or propagating unlawful maritime claims”.
The four stressed that this is “in direct contravention of the principles outlined in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea”.
Bloomberg last year reported that Beijing has started building up several land features in the unoccupied northern part of Spratlys, citing unnamed Western officials as sources.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied this report in December 2022, saying Beijing abides by the DOC.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has yet to provide details when asked for specifics.
Meanwhile, both the Philippines and the US called on China to “fully comply with the final and legally binding” 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea.
“The Award, which was constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, is final and legally binding on the parties, and validates the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction with respect to its EEZ and continental shelf, including maritime areas in the vicinity of Reed Bank, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal also known in the Philippines as Recto Bank, Panganiban Reef, and Ayungin Shoal, respectively,” the four officials said in their joint statement. Philippine News Agency