FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. is in Washington DC today for a historic trilateral summit with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. This promises to be a watershed moment for a region laboring under China’s military assertiveness.

The road to this meeting took many years. Until very recently, the prospect for a summit like this one, where regional security concerns overshadow economic and trade issues, may be considered almost nil.

Japan, until a few years ago, adhered scrupulously to the pacifist principles prescribed in its postwar constitution. Tokyo maintained a token “defense force” and avoided participation in multilateral military undertakings, from the Vietnam War to the Coalition of the Willing in the Middle East.

Japan’s pacifist stance was once staunchly supported by its public. It perfectly suited Tokyo to rely on the US nuclear defense umbrella and host military bases for the Americans. While the Philippines tried to collect some form of rent from the Americans for hosting their bases in the late 20th century, Japan gladly subsidized American military presence on their soil.

Japan’s pacifist policy was reinforced by its neighbors, countries occupied by the Imperial Army in the last great war. As a matter of protocol, Southeast Asian countries (particularly the Philippines) filed diplomatic objections each time Tokyo improved on its armaments.

Meanwhile, the threat of North Korean missiles raining down on Japanese cities increased by the day. That threat escalated most rapidly the past few years, given dictator Kim Jong-un’s obsession with growing his missile force.

Japan has lingering territorial issues with Russia and China’s rapidly modernizing military could potentially threaten vital trade routes. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan, made likely by the Xi regime’s cynical use of nationalism to snow under domestic economic failings, will have devastating consequences for Japan.

Over the past few years, Japanese public opinion on building a more credible defense posture began to change. Strident pacifism retreated. Tokyo showed increasing willingness to participate in regional security initiatives and carry its own weight in maintaining a rules-based international order.

Over the past few years, Japan’s self-defense forces willingly participated in multilateral military exercises in the region. This time, Japan’s participation was welcomed rather than condemned by her neighbors – the Philippines particularly.

The Kishida government committed to increase its defense spending to two percent of GDP by 2027, matching the norm NATO countries set for themselves. No objections were heard from the country’s pacifist public nor from Japan’s neighbors.

The stage was set for Japan to finally emerge as a full-fledged defense partner in the region.

The Philippines, too, took a muddled route to this summit.

In 1991, the Philippine Senate, riding a wave of nationalist agitation, voted to expel US bases from the archipelago. Although hobbled by communist and Muslim separatist insurgencies, the Philippines decided to take full responsibility for its external defense.

That did not work out too well. In the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US bases from our shores, China’s hegemonic impulses began to fill the void.

When China began building structures in the South China Sea reefs, Beijing told us these were merely to provide shelters for their fishermen. Soon, these structures blossomed into full-scale military bases, complete with runways and missile launch sites. Over the past two years, the contested areas have been filled with hundreds of “militia” and China Coast Guard vessels, pushing out our fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds and hampering our ability to maintain our outposts in the area.

Without more definite support from our partners in the ASEAN, the Philippines bore the responsibility for checking Beijing’s hegemonic impulses almost single-handedly. South Korea offered a few boats for coastal patrols and Japan offered supplies for our Coast Guard. The US and Australia conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols along the international sea lanes claimed by China as territorial waters. None of these could turn back Beijing’s increasingly assertive maritime presence.

Admitting our own inadequacies for external defense, the Philippines agreed to allow use of our military camps for positioning US supplies. We escalated our regular war exercises with the US, gradually involving other allies such as Australia and Japan.

When Chinese vessels forced us out of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, we sought international arbitration. This did not win us recognition of our sovereignty claims. It only won us affirmation of our “sovereign rights” to areas within our exclusive economic zone as provided for by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Nevertheless, the strong naval presence China maintains in the South China Sea prevents us from fully exploiting potential oil and natural gas deposits in the contested areas. The status quo will not enable us to fully exploit our exclusive economic zone.

During the Duterte years, the Philippines toned down its position on the contested reefs in the hope that doing so would encourage more trade and investment flows from China. Very little of that materialized.

Over the past two years, Philippine foreign policy became more assertive. We pushed for increased security interdependence with our allies. A more defined security alliance with the US, Australia and Japan emerged. We are explicitly seeking more international guarantees for our security.

On hindsight, all roads lead to the vital trilateral security summit now being held in Washington DC. There is no way we can reverse Beijing’s hegemonic impulses than to stand together for a rules-based international order.

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