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US, JAPAN, PHL LEADERS POISED FOR WHITE HOUSE SUMMIT IN APRIL; Defense tops trilateral agenda as China’s Xi peps up troops

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

MANILA/WASHINGTON – Amid China President Xi prepping up the Chinese army for possible wider confrontation in the South China Sea, United States President Joe Biden is poised to convene a trilateral meeting with Japan and the Philippines in the White House this April with defense and economy topping the agenda.

Plans for the three-country talks in Washington surfaced as Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels continue their “harassment” of Philippine Coast Guard and other vessels in the West Philippine Sea, prompting President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to renew his assurances to Filipinos in a meeting in Germany that he would continue to defend the Philippine territory and would not allow even an inch of it to be grabbed by another country.

 Marcos underscored the importance for like-minded countries to “present a united front against any unilateral attempts to take territory from any other country” during his bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin 

Marcos’ statement immediately drew the backing of the German Chancellor, stressing freedom of navigation is important to all nations.

Scholz assured President Marcos of Germany’s continued support and their commitment to increase maritime cooperation with the Philippines including other cooperative endeavors between the two countries. “So, we are willing to increase this, and all the other cooperation we are having,” Scholz told President Marcos.

Before the trilateral dialogue in April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japan Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa will visit Manila next week for talks focusing on bolstering defense and economic ties ahead of a summit of their leaders in US. It will be the second visit of Blinken in Manila.

Blinken will be in Manila on March 18 for bilateral talks with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and other senior Philippine officials before their March 20 trilateral ministerial meeting with Kamikawa.

Earlier, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo visited Manila with leaders of 22 big American corporations and other US officials. In a meeting with Filipino and American business leaders at a Makati City hotel, Raimondo said the official trips and business missions from the US send a message that the Philippines is a priority for the US public and private sectors.

“We are engaging more and more economically in the India-Pacific region, but the Philippines is special,” Raimondo said, noting the 72 years of “ironclad and rock solid” bilateral ties between the two countries.

The top-level meetings follow a series of hostilities between Chinese and Philippine ships and vessels in the disputed South China Sea, which have been denounced by the Philippines along with the United States and Japan.

On top of the agenda is a planned trilateral summit of US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. at the White House in Washington DC on April 11.

The US and Japan have also boosted their trade and investments in the Philippines while enhancing defense cooperation.

“Japan is really a major partner and ally for our defense and security plus our economic relations,” a senior Philippine official privy to the arrangements for the the high-level meetings said.

Reports from the White House showed President Biden will host Kishida for an official visit to the US on April 10.

In Berlin, Marcos stressed that a free and open South China Sea will not only benefit Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, but also the entire world.

“We already have many exchanges with Germany in terms of training for our Armed Forces and, of course, the Coast Guard as well. And that we have agreed with the Chancellor to expand that,” President Marcos said during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Scholz.

“Because it really, it has to be recognized that the South China Sea handles 60 percent of the trade of the entire world. So, it’s not solely the interest of the Philippines, or of ASEAN, or of Indo-Pacific region but the entire world. That is why it’s in all our interest to keep it as a safe passage for all international commerce that goes on in the South China Sea,” he said.

During a joint press conference with President Marcos at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin,  Chancellor Scholz also underscored the importance of upholding international law, particularly laws that govern international navigation such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“I believe it to be important to each and every one, adheres to the legislation in place. We’ve talked about this today, as I said, and I made it clear that we support Philippines in ensuring that the rights are being protected,” Scholz told President Marcos.

And as to the upcoming visit of the German leader to China, President Marcos said he can only wish that the visit will be a success particularly in attaining a more peaceful situation in Ukraine, and also in lowering the tension in the South China Sea.

Although there is no outright war in the South China Sea, there are worries among nations because of the increasing tensions in the vital waterway.

“Ukraine, of course, is a continuing challenge that the whole world faces. It is not some—the interconnection of the global economy… such that an occurrence, such a conflict, no matter how far away from the Philippines does affect still the Philippines and the region,” President Marcos said.

For his part, Scholz said world economic issues such as the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait will undoubtedly be tackled in his visit to China.During the meeting, the Philippines received Germany’s backing in protecting its rights in the South China Sea and the support to international-based order, with Scholz underscoring the importance of upholding international law, particularly laws that govern international navigation such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS

Marcos said the Philippine government did not reject any proposals that China has supposedly made to the country, except its “premise” that “their territory follows what is now described as 10-dash line, which is not recognized by any country including the Philippines.

The President also stood firm that the baseline of the Philippines was established for years already.

“We have the economic zone that China has already intruded upon. And until that premise that China has made, in terms of all these discussions with Philippines, then it’s very difficult to see a way forward,” President Marcos said.

The chief executive also reiterated that he will continue upholding the Philippine Constitution and protect the people’s rights and the country’s sovereignty. PND

The governments of the Philippines and Germany reaffirmed their commitment to promoting rules-based international order as they agreed to expand collaboration between the two countries “to contribute to the broader global community.”

Marcos also thanked Germany for its continued support to the capacity-building of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

Germany has been providing training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) since 1974, making it the country’s second oldest formal defense partner.

Before leaving for Germany on Monday, President Marcos said he has signed the Joint Declaration of Intent on Strengthening Cooperation in the Maritime Sector between the Philippines and Germany’s transport agencies.

The President said he is heartened by the increased interest in enhancing maritime cooperation between the Philippines and Germany, welcoming more initiatives to enrich the partnership between the two countries.

He also extended his gratitude to Scholz for his continued support for international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as he reiterated the Philippines’ stand on protecting its sovereignty.