By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

JAPAN will probably play a key role in the Philippines’ defense posture amid China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, political analysts said on Sunday.

The coast guards of the United States, Philippines and Japan on June 1 kicked off their first-ever three-way maritime exercise, affirming their commitment to keep a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

“Manila and Japan share the same concerns toward a belligerent China with expansive ambitions, and both countries are strongly intertwined within the US alliance network in the region,” geopolitical analyst Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at De La Salle University in Manila, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“The chance to smoothly assimilate, enhance interoperability and expand the scope of their partnership will be significantly high.”

In a statement at the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard cited the “importance of conducting periodic exercises to ensure the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.”

“The Philippines, Japan and the US also commit to close exchanging information and developing coordination in various fields related to coast guard functions,” it said, adding that they “pledge to pursue more trilateral efforts, especially in human resource development.”

The sea exercise will run until June 7.

The trilateral security partnership would not be the last, Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Messenger chat.

“It may cultivate habits of working together to address shared challenges like illegal fishing and interference in marine resource activities and regular resupply missions in the South China Sea hotspot,” he said.

“It can build interoperability between frontline maritime agencies of the three sides. It may be institutionalized to form part of a broader framework for military-civilian cooperation in the maritime domain,” he added.

Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Armand Balilo earlier said the week-long exercise — packaged as a human resource training — has nothing to do with China’s aggression in Philippine territories in the South China Sea.

The Japanese government in December committed to double its defense budget to 2% from 1% of its gross domestic product, citing China’s aggression and North Korea’s unpredictability.

Earlier this year, Japan Times reported that a possible tripartite security agreement among the Philippines, US and Japan had been agreed in principle during President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s visit to Tokyo in February.

Mr. Marcos Jr. said it’s “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.”

The US and Japan have backed the Philippines in its sea dispute with China, which claims more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map.

The US and Philippines are also looking at a trilateral security partnership with Australia.

Japan’s role is pivotal in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific since the call has been largely drawn from Tokyo’s vision, Mr. Gill said.

He noted that the 47th G7 (Group of Seven) Summit in Tokyo last month “emphasized the need of the members to maximize their efforts to contribute to the stability of the region.”

Japan is the only Asian G7 country.

Mr. Gill said Tokyo’s gradual shift to a more security-driven foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, Manila’s reinvigorated emphasis on territorial defense and maritime security, and Washington’s desire to enhance its role as a responsible security provider in the region “have allowed all three countries to deepen their strategic partnerships further to safeguard the established rule-based order.”

“As another representation of this growing synergy, the defense ministers of all three countries plus Australia are planning to hold their first-ever quadrilateral talks,” he added.

Chester B. Cabalza, founder of Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said it is natural and logical for Japan and the Philippines  to elevate their ties on “vital strategic issues” since they have strong economic ties and similarities in their defense posture.

Tokyo remains as Manila’s top infrastructure donor and supporter, he pointed out.

The Philippines got P109 billion in official development assistance (ODA) from Japan from April 2021 to March 2022, the biggest among Southeast Asian beneficiaries, the Japan International Cooperation Agency said in January.

The Japanese aid agency said it was venturing into more than 80 development projects in the Philippines, covering infrastructure and social development, disparity mitigation, disaster management, urban road congestion mitigation and peace in Mindanao.

One of Japan’s most significant projects in the Philippines to date is the first phase of the Metro Manila Subway project.

Japan’s official development assistance in the Philippines accounted for 36.44% or $11 billion of the Philippines’ total ODA in 2020.

Mr. Cabalza said Japan also has a close military partnership with the US, the Philippines’ oldest treaty ally.

“Aside from the geographic importance and space that Manila and Tokyo share, both states have a maritime and territorial spat with Beijing in the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” he  said. “This brings them together to address the complexity of the South China Sea that should be addressed multilaterally.”

Mr. Cabalza said it was Japan which offered the three-way security partnership because it sees Manila as a strategic partner.

The security partnership was a bold decision for the Philippines “as it expands its clout in external defense and cements an iron-clad alliance with both Tokyo and Washington,” he said.

He said the move would probably irritate China “because it is seen as a containment of China and a provocation for maritime disorder.”

“However, the trilateral effort should be construed as a continuous adherence to maritime rule-based norms of freedom of navigation and a promotion of naval diplomacy of like-minded nations,” he said.

During their summit in Tokyo last month, G7 countries condemned China over what they see as a “disturbing rise” of the “weaponization of economic vulnerabilities.”

China in recent years had imposed trade sanctions on countries that have displeased it, including South Korea after it installed an American missile defense system, and Lithuania after it allowed Taiwan to set up a de facto embassy there.

Mr. Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo R. Duterte, led a foreign policy pivot to China in 2016 in exchange for investment pledges, few of which had materialized.

“Such drills between like minded democracies should be sustained and enhanced,” Mr. Gill said, referring to the three-way partnership. “It should also be expanded to accommodate other like-minded partners in the region to fortify the stability of the Indo-Pacific region.”