By Ruth Abbey Gita-Carlos

DANGEROUS CONDUCT. The civilian supply vessel Unaizah May 1 is harassed, blocked, and blasted with water cannon by a Chinese coast guard vessel while on its way to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal on March 5, 2024. The Philippines, the United States, and Japan on Friday (April 12) expressed serious concern over China’s repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation, and the disruption of supply lines. (Photo courtesy of Armed Forces of the Philippines)

MANILA – The Philippines, the United States, and Japan on Friday expressed their serious concerns over China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea (SCS).

In a joint statement issued after their trilateral meeting at the White House in Washington DC, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the militarization of reclaimed features and unlawful maritime claims in the SCS is a cause for concern.

“We steadfastly oppose the dangerous and coercive use of Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, as well as efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation,” the three leaders said.

“We reiterate serious concern over the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation, and the disruption of supply lines to Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), which constitute dangerous and destabilizing conduct,” they added.

They called on China to adhere to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s “final and legally binding” ruling on July 12, 2016 which upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction in its exclusive economic zone.

Trilateral maritime dialogue

During the three leaders’ meeting, they established a trilateral maritime dialogue to enhance coordination and collective responses.

They also expressed concern over “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing.

“We support the ability of Filipino and Japanese fisherfolk to pursue their traditional livelihoods. To build regional capacity and address threats posed by transnational crime, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and other maritime challenges, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States plan to expand our efforts to provide maritime law enforcement training and support to partner countries in the region,” the joint statement read.

Biden and Kishida affirmed the US and Japan’s continued support for the Philippine Coast Guard’s capacity building, citing Tokyo’s recent provision of 12 Coast Guard vessels and plans to provide five additional vessels to the Philippines.

The US also looked forward to welcoming Philippine and Japan Coast Guard members onto its Coast Guard vessel during a patrol in the Indo-Pacific this year, following their first-ever joint exercise in 2023.

“Within the next year, our coast guards also plan to conduct an at-sea trilateral exercise and other maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific to improve interoperability and advance maritime security and safety,” the joint statement said.

Peace, security in Indo-Pacific

The three leaders emphasized the need to deepen cooperation, in support of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, amid “serious” concerns over the current situation in the East China Sea.

They reiterated their “strong opposition” to China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion.

They cited the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an “indispensable element of global security and prosperity,” stressing that there is no change in their positions on Taiwan and their call for a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.

“We underscore our nations’ unwavering commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, and the importance of respecting the sovereign rights of states within their exclusive economic zones consistent with international law, as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” they said.

The three countries plan to enhance defense cooperation by conducting combined naval training and exercises with additional partners around Japan in 2025.

Humanitarian aid, disaster relief

The three leaders agreed to strengthen extensive coordination to promote maritime domain awareness, and deepen cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

They sought to identify and implement opportunities for combined training with Southeast Asian regional partners.

“We emphasize our commitment to advancing multilateral maritime domain awareness cooperation through such venues as the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness,” they said.

“We are also launching a Japan-Philippines-U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise, which could be integrated into trilateral or multilateral activities, including Balikatan 2025, to ensure our countries are ready and able to work together seamlessly and expeditiously in response to any crisis or contingency,” they added. (PNA)