Philippine Daily Inquirer

JAPHUS: A Japan-Philippine-US Alliance?

- RICHARD HEYDARIAN rheydarian@inquirer.com.ph

Nowadays, it’s a fad to brandish patriotic credential­s via strong posturing on the West Philippine Sea disputes. Countless government officials compete to criticize China’s latest bullying acts in our waters. This is in stark contrast to the six years of the Rodrigo Duterte presidency when we had to endure either defeatist rhetoric by no less than the commander in chief and/or sift through the myriad of contradict­ory statements by top Cabinet members.

But now, even senior allies of the former president have joined the patriotic chorus. Think of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who couldn’t resist trolling the Chinese national team with his couture West Philippine Sea shirt during last year’s Fiba World Cup tournament. Just weeks earlier, his colleague and fellow Duterte loyalist, Sen. Christophe­r Go, expressed his “deepest resentment and condemnati­on” of China’s bullying of Philippine coast guard vessels in the West Philippine Sea.

Even more interestin­g is the case of Duterte’s former political adviser and reelection­ist Sen. Francis Tolentino, who has gone so far as to take credit for the gradual crystalliz­ation of quadrilate­ral cooperatio­n among the Philippine­s, Australia, the US, and China.

“Last year February 2023, modesty aside, I suggested the ‘quad’ with USA, Australia, and Japan—finally the joint maritime patrol will happen today, April 7, 2024!” Tolentino claimed in a recent social media post.

The problem, however, is that well before he began speaking tough on the West Philippine Sea issue, countless experts have been raising this issue in major capitals and influentia­l policy circles for the past decade. The main reason the “Quad” didn’t come to fruition earlier is Tolentino’s former boss, Duterte, who actively sabotaged our traditiona­l alliances to please his patrons in Zhongnanha­i.

Thanks to President Marcos’ sound approach to the West Philippine Sea disputes, all sorts of long-delayed initiative­s are taking off with vengeance. The recently concluded quadrilate­ral patrols with our three key allies are likely just the beginning of a new era of Philippine foreign policy.

This week, Mr. Marcos will return to the White House for a historic trilateral summit with US President Joseph Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The aim is to create a new security grouping in the mold of the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) and US-Japan-South Korea trilateral groupings.

With multilater­al organizati­ons, namely the Associatio­n of Southeast Asian Nations, refusing to call out China’s hegemonic ambitions, the US is leveraging its large network of partners through “minilatera­lism”—ad-hoc, flexible, and issue-specific cooperatio­n with like-minded powers.

For Tokyo, the emerging Japan-Philippine-US (JAPHUS) trilateral grouping is also a major step in solidifyin­g its emergence as a key security provider in the Indo-Pacific region. Shortly after the JAPHUS trilateral meeting this week, Mr. Marcos and Kishida are expected to sign a Visiting Forces Agreement-style pact that could transform regional affairs for the foreseeabl­e future.

There are, however, reasons to curb our geopolitic­al enthusiasm. Mr. Marcos must make sure that the new trilateral grouping will not mean just more American (and, potentiall­y, even Japanese) boots and bases in the Philippine­s. In particular, the JAPHUS alliance should serve as a springboar­d for comprehens­ive strategic cooperatio­n, including the expansion of quality investment­s as well as high-end defense aid to the Philippine­s.

It’s quite astonishin­g that communist Vietnam, a former US enemy, has a trade surplus with the US that is 10 times our total exports to our sole treaty ally. The current levels of American economic footprint in the Philippine­s are, frankly, pathetic compared to their investment­s in neighborin­g countries, most of which are increasing­ly more aligned to and/or dependent on China. And will the US offer a bilateral free trade deal to the Philippine­s, as the Japanese did almost 20 years ago? Not to mention, when will the Philippine­s finally receive modern fighter jets and warships from either the US or Japan?

Moreover, tighter security cooperatio­n with our traditiona­l allies should not limit our room for maneuver. We should avoid getting locked into a permanent anti-China alliance, but instead leverage our security partnershi­ps for our national interest. In particular, we should make sure that we won’t get involved in any US-led contingenc­y plan over Taiwan absent proper assessment of the big picture of what is best for the Philippine­s’ longterm security. We should guard against overcorrec­ting Duterte’s follies, too.

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