Philippines, Japan, US trilateral partnership still in ‘early stage,’ says Manalo 

Sofia Tomacruz

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Philippines, Japan, US trilateral partnership still in ‘early stage,’ says Manalo 

PHILIPPINES' TOP DIPLOMAT. Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo stresses Japan's role as a strategic partner for Manila during a lecture at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Japan on May 16, 2023.

Photo from Enrique Manalo's Twitter

The Philippines and Japan first tackled the possibility of engaging in tripartite activities with the US during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s official visit to Japan in February

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said on Tuesday, May 16, that a trilateral partnership between Manila, Tokyo, and Washington is still in its “early stages,” after leaders from the three countries earlier agreed to increase cooperation with one another in the region. 

Manalo made the statement in a gathering of diplomats, journalists, and academics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan, where he is undertaking policy discussions and participating in the Munich Leaders Meeting from May 14 to 16.

“In this particular case, there was an understanding that we should explore the possibility of trilateral arrangements. But at this stage, we still have to discuss the terms of reference and what kind of activities so it’s really very much in the early stage,” Manalo said. 

The Philippines and Japan first tackled the possibility of engaging in tripartite activities with the United States during President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s official visit to Japan in February. 

At the time, Marcos said the proposal from Japan was a new aspect of relations that further needed to be fleshed out to determine “roles” that each country would play, but that the proposed pact could be a “central element” to providing “stability” in the region.

“It is part of an ongoing process that we are undertaking to make more solid partnerships and alliances that we are beginning to put together in our area,” Marcos had told Kyodo News

“That is, I think, a central element to…providing some sort of stability in the face of all these problems that we are seeing around us,” he added.

Manalo echoed this in Tokyo on Tuesday, saying that while details on the proposed partnership were still up for discussion, “The important thing is there is an understanding of the principle that it would be useful to have such types of trilateral cooperation activities.” 

Trilateral activities 

Among trilateral activities Manila, Tokyo, and Washington were eyeing are joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea

Earlier in March, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that it was crafting guidelines on the conduct of maritime activities in the waterway, including joint patrols with the country’s allies. 

Aside from this, Manalo said there were also other activities that the three countries could build on in the Sulu Sea. 

Maritime security continues to be a key area of cooperation in the Philippines’ ties with Japan and the US, with both countries often offering assistance and support for the Philippines’ position in the South China Sea. The three countries also share common positions on issues like trafficking, piracy, and illegal fishing. 

In April, Manila and Washington likewise voiced their commitment to expand cooperation with Japan following a high-level defense and foreign affairs dialogue. The two countries said potential activities may include Japan’s observation and participation in trilateral and multilateral defense exercises. 

The Philippines, Japan, and the US currently hold a trilateral defense policy dialogue.

The partnership was an issue raised again in May, during Marcos’ first official visit to the US where Marcos and Biden agreed to establish “modes of cooperation,” particularly with Japan and Australia.

Treaty allies

In a speech delivered at Japan’s GRIPS, Manalo highlighted the need for the Philippines and Japan to cooperate with one another, as well as other countries, in ensuring stability in the region. 

The Philippines’ top diplomat pointed out the unique position Manila and Tokyo shared in confronting growing challenges that have risen from geopolitical pressure and rivalry between the US and China. 

In particular, Manalo noted that while both the Philippines and Japan had “huge economic relations” with China, it also possessed treaty alliances with the US. The situation was a “commonality which no other nation in Asia possesses,” with the exception of South Korea, Manalo stressed.

“Hence, our two nations must continue to engage both China and the United States constructively, and support calls for Beijing and Washington to responsibly manage their strategic rivalry,” he added. 

Security challenges brought about by growing uncertainty, China’s rising influence, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and nuclear threats from North Korea are among factors that have pushed countries like the Philippines and Japan to strengthen defense ties and alliances with other countries. 

Owing to this, Manalo said it was imperative that the Philippines and Japan – which “hold an unshakeable faith in democracy, peace, and human rights” –  work together to preserve the rule of law in the region. 

“We need to have rules and we need to have international law otherwise the world will be ruled by the strong, and the middle and smaller countries will have nothing to turn to,” he said. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.