By David Hessen
China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is showing new consequences as Japan and the Philippines ready arrangements to permit Japanese operability out of military bases located on Philippine soil. The entry of Japan to the South China Sea and Tokyo’s growing defense ties with Manila demonstrate how much China’s saber-rattling towards its neighbors has recently backfired. A further tightening of defense arrangements by allies of the United States will likely continue if China does not change its tactics.
Japan’s stronger relationship with the Philippines is only the latest in a series of regional strategic setbacks for China. Earlier in 2023, South Korea, Japan, and the United States formed a trilateral security dialogue, reshaping regional security cooperation at a level not seen since the formation of AUKUS. While not explicitly aimed at countering China, the trilateral security dialogue was formed in part to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan and to preserve regional stability.
Also in 2023, the new Philippine government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (“EDCA”) base access by opening up new areas to the United States Armed Forces. After months of harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia forces during routine resupply missions to isolated Philippine forces on disputed islets in the South China Sea, the Philippines abandoned its more conciliatory attitude of the last decade towards China. Instead, it is realigning with the United States. Steps taken include reaffirming the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, expanding military and coast guard cooperation, and investing in Philippine infrastructure and economic development.
The concern for the Philippines is straightforward – China claims certain islands in the South China Sea as its own and has used military force to seize them in the past, such as Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In the face of increasing harassment by Chinese forces, the government of President Marcos might conclude that it does not have the strength to stand up to China alone and needs support from the United States to counterbalance China or, in the worst case, lend direct military assistance in the event of conflict.
Japan’s concerns are also growing in line with Chinese saber-rattling in the region. In addition to longstanding disputes over rightful ownership of the Senkaku Islands, Tokyo increasingly considers Chinese threats to invade Taiwan to be a danger to Japanese security as well. Taiwan’s position alongside crucial shipping lanes would allow China to control access to Japan and limit Japan’s ability to respond in the event of conflict over the Senkaku Islands, located just northeast of Taiwan. Taiwan could even become a springboard for further Chinese action against Okinawa and local U.S. military bases.
Japanese policymakers will therefore progressively take steps to ensure its defense and prevent Chinese expansionism in East Asia. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ recent acquisition of U.S. Tomahawk missiles is a key segment of that strategy shift, as is its renovation of helicopter carriers as fighter-capable aircraft carriers. Japan’s expansion into the Philippines’ military bases represents a significant southern push in its strategy to shore up its security.
The threat of violence in East Asia will likely inspire further steps towards deterrence by parties worried about Chinese aggression. Additional Chinese statements that indicate an intent to annex Taiwan will only exacerbate the fears of China’s neighbors, even if such statements are meant for a domestic audience. Continued interceptions of small Philippine resupply craft will not inspire the belief that China seeks a diplomatic solution to disputes in the South China Sea. These actions have certainly been the inspiration behind Tokyo and Manila’s latest strategic moves.
Military base cohabitation may be just the first step before multilateral training exercises, joint naval patrols, and even the development of further regional military agreements such as AUKUS. Without course correction, China’s actions will continue to push Japan and the Philippines closer together and towards the United States, making the western Pacific increasingly more tense and less safe for all parties.
David Hessen is the Managing Editor of the South China Sea Newswire.