West Philippine Sea

Philippines, US, Japan, Australia to hold ‘maritime cooperative activity’

Michelle Abad

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Philippines, US, Japan, Australia to hold ‘maritime cooperative activity’

PAST MCA. Philippine and US aircrafts conduct a joint flight on November 21, 2023 as part of the Northern Luzon leg of the maritime cooperative activity.

Armed Forces of the Philippines

The maritime cooperative activity to be held in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone will demonstrate the countries' 'collective commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific'

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines, the United States, Japan, and Australia will hold a “maritime cooperative activity” (MCA) in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on Sunday, April 7, “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” their defense ministers said in a joint statement.

“Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States uphold the right to freedom of navigation and overflight, and respect for maritime rights under international law, reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the defense ministers said in the joint statement on Saturday, April 6.

“Demonstrating our collective commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific, our combined defense/armed forces will conduct a Maritime Cooperative Activity within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone on April 7, 2024,” they added.

Naval and air force units will participate in the activities, seeking to demonstrate “professional interactions” between the participating countries’ air and sea forces.

The defense ministers said that “ultimately, the Maritime Cooperative Activity will strengthen the interoperability of our defense/armed forces doctrines, tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

“We stand with all nations in safeguarding the international order – based on the rule of law – that is the foundation for a peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific region. Our four nations reaffirm the position regarding the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Award as a final and legally binding decision on the parties to the dispute,”

The July 12, 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea arbitration in favor of the Philippines which China does not recognize. (READ: [OPINION] Revisiting the July 12, 2016 arbitral award)

Enhanced cooperation in ‘maritime scenarios’

In a media interview, Philippine Department of National Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said there will be five vessels involved – two from the Philippines, and one each from the US, Australia, and Japan.

The activities include communication exercises, division tactics, and photo exercises. Andolong said they aim to “enhance the participating forces’ ability to work together effectively in maritime scenarios.”

The MCA will precede a trilateral summit among the Philippines, US, and Japan, which will discuss, among others, recent incidents in the West Philippine Sea. While not new, China has persisted in its aggression against Philippine vessels in the area. A particular recent incident is the China Coast Guard’s use of water cannon against a Philippine resupply boat that was en route to the BRP Sierra Madre, a makeshift Philippine military outpost in Ayungin Shoal, on March 23.

Asked if the one-day activity would increase tensions with China, Andolong said it “should not.”

“This MCA is being conducted within the Philippine EEZ in accordance with international law and… established norms in pursuit of our national interest. Although we expect China to malign the exercise, as they always do,” Andolong said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Andolong said that the MCA would send a “clear message of unity and resolve” in upholding universally recognized principles. It would also manifest the country’s partnership with the others involved.

‘Maintaining peace’

Ahead of the MCA, all four defense ministers of the participating countries expressed enthusiasm in the activities aimed to help maintain peace in the region.

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said that the series of bilateral and multilateral MCAs is a step in building the Philippines’ capacity for self-defense.

Japanese Defense Minister Kihara Minoru said Japan saw a need to realize a free and open international order based on the rule of law, as well as secure regional peace and stability in cooperation with allies and like-minded countries.

“Japan believes that the issue concerning the South China Sea is directly related to the peace and stability of the region and is a legitimate concern of the international community including Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and the United States, and thus Japan opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo by force, such attempts as well as any actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea,” the Japanese defense chief said.

For the US, every country should be free to conduct lawful air and maritime operations.

“These activities with our allies Australia, Japan, and the Philippines underscore our shared commitment to ensuring that all countries are free to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. Our operations together support peace and stability at the heart of our shared vision for a free and open region,” said US Secretary of Defense James Austin.

Australia, through Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles, also highlighted the importance of all states to exercise rights and freedoms, including the freedom of navigation, in a matter consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The four nations have banded together in the past, from a ministerial meeting in Singapore in June 2023, and their militaries holding talks in Tokyo in December the same year– Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.