THE PHILIPPINES is doing well in pursuing stronger maritime security partnerships with the United States and Japan given the lack of a united front within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Lucio B. Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat that the growing ties between the three countries may be a result of the failure of the 10-member southeast Asian bloc to take concrete actions on security issues in the region.

“These minilaterals may present an expedient workaround to the difficulties of regional organizations like ASEAN to take a common stand on security issues, given varying risk assessments and relations with and influence of major powers in their security and foreign policy calculation,” he said.

ASEAN members Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia along with China and Taiwan hold different and in some cases overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea.

China and ASEAN have yet to finalize a code of conduct in the disputed waterway after negotiations started in 2002 following the signing of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The national security advisers of the three countries — Eduardo Año of the Philippines, Jake Sullivan of the US, and Akiba Takeo of Japan — held their first talks on June 16 in Tokyo, discussing regional security issues, including those involving the South China Sea, and ways to boost their trilateral cooperation.

The three security advisers said in a joint statement that “…they reiterated the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

They agreed to conduct combined maritime activities and advance trilateral defense cooperation based on the recent progress between the US and the Philippines, such as the four additional locations identified under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and between Japan and the Philippines in discussing frameworks to enhance and facilitate reciprocal visits of defense and military officials.

They also reaffirmed the importance of three-way joint trainings among the three countries’ coast guards that was held in early June.  

“Regular patrols with like-minded partners are naturally important and beneficial for Manila’s desire to maximize its efforts towards maritime security and territorial defense,” geopolitical analyst Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at the De La Salle University, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Mr. Gill said the Philippines should further deepen its relationship with the US and Japan by pushing their three-way partnership to go beyond the area of maritime security.

“Manila must also forward proposals for a trilateral development and economic cooperation framework, which aligns with the visions of all three countries towards a free, open, prosperous, and rules-based Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“Hence, the trilateral must not just stop at joint patrols, rather, it must be considered to be a foot on the door for more opportunities to explore.”

Chester B. Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said pursuing naval and coastal partnerships with other countries is important for a coastal nation like the Philippines, which is struggling to contain China’s aggression at sea.

Mr. Cabalza said the insights and “best practices” that the Philippines can gain on coastal and naval defense from the stronger and “strategic” countries are “contributory to Manila’s short and long term strategies aimed at attaining interoperability and defense capability.”

The experts expect China, which claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, to react aggressively to the three countries’ partnership.

“Definitely, China will always be on its offensive guard in encircling their maritime interests in the South China Sea,” Mr. Cabalza said. “Or Beijing will furthermore boost its naval and coast guard diplomacy to address its maritime insecurity with Manila which they successfully did recently.”

Mr. Gill said it is also palpable for China to react negatively towards such developments “given its regional exclusionary desires.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza