Biden Affirms ‘Ironclad’ Commitment to Japan, Philippines; China Protests Multilateral Naval Drills

April 12, 2024 1:22 PM
Australia, Japan, the Philippines and the United States, conducted a Maritime Cooperative Activity (MCA), April 7, 2024. US Navy Photo

U.S. defense commitments to Japan and the Philippines are “ironclad,” reaffirmed President Joe Bident on Thursday during a summit in Washington with both countries. The announcement coincided with a week of U.S. Navy drills with partners in the South China and East China seas.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and New Zealand conducted surveillance operations in support of United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

Speaking just before his summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Biden said, “I want to be clear, the United States’ defense commitments to the Philippines and Japan are ironclad, as I have said before any attack on Philippine aircraft or vessels in the South China Sea will invoke our mutual defense treaty.”

On Friday, during the daily press conference of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesperson Mao Ning was asked to comment on Biden’s remark and said, “The relevant U.S. statement deviates from the basic facts and maliciously attacks and accuses China. China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to this.” Mao also said it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, including Second Thomas Shoal and the adjacent waters, as well as over the Senkaku Islands and its nearby waters. “China’s actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea are reasonable, legal and irreproachable in accordance with international law,” Mao said. He added that there had never been any problems with freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but China firmly opposes relevant countries’ arrogance and show of force in the region.

The ministry spokesperson stated that the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration award to the Philippines is illegal and invalid. China had refused to participate in the arbitration. Mao accused the countries concerned of colluding with foreign forces for their own selfish interests and being willing to be pawns in efforts to contain China. She also said the United States adheres to a Cold War mentality and frequently threatens other countries with bilateral alliance treaties, violating the United Nations Charter and undermining regional stability. “China is unswervingly determined to continue to safeguard territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and to continue to work with regional countries to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” concluded Mao.

In their statement following their summit, leaders from the U.S., Japan and the Philippines expressed concerns about China’s dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, including the militarization of reclaimed features and unlawful maritime claims.

“We steadfastly oppose the dangerous and coercive use of Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, as well as efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation. We reiterate serious concern over the PRC’s repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and the disruption of supply lines to Second Thomas Shoal, which constitute dangerous and destabilizing conduct,” reads the statement, which also called on China to abide by the 2016 arbitration ruling.

The leaders also expressed concerns about the situation in the East China Sea, and reiterated their strong opposition to any attempts by China to unilaterally change the status quo in this area by force or coercion, including through actions that seek to undermine Japan’s long-standing and peaceful administration of the Senkaku Islands. The three leaders affirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and called for a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues. North Korea was condemned by the leaders for its “escalatory threats and unprecedented number of ballistic missile launches, including multiple intercontinental ballistic missile launches, which pose a grave threat to peace and security.”

The three nations said they intend to identify and implement opportunities for combined training with Southeast Asian regional partners and would also launch a Japan-Philippines-U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise, which could be integrated into trilateral or multilateral activities, including Balikatan 2025.

The countries also resolved to advance trilateral defense cooperation, including through combined naval training and exercises between the three countries and additional partners, and by coordinating U.S. and Japanese support for Philippine defense modernization priorities. A maritime training activity around Japan in 2025 is being planned, and the statement also said the U.S. and Japan welcome the growing defense cooperation between Australia and the Philippines and between the Philippines and the Republic of Korea.

Over the week, the U.S. military conducted several exercises with its partners, including a trilateral maritime exercise with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) from Thursday to Friday, according to a 7th Fleet release. Ships participating in the drill included carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), destroyers USS Russell (DDG-59), USS Daniel Inouye (DDG-118) and USS Howard (DDG-83); destroyer JS Ariake (DD-109) and destroyer ROKS Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong (DDG-993). A JMSDF release on the exercise stated that a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon also took part in the drills.

During the two-day event, the three maritime forces sailed together, conducted advanced maritime communication operations, maritime interdiction operations training, air warfare exercises, staff exchanges, and integration, according to the release. The drills were part of an agreement by the U.S., Japan and South Korea following the August 2023 Camp David Summit.

In the South China Sea, following its participation in a South China Sea patrol with Australian, Japanese, and Philippine warships, littoral combat ship USS Mobile (LCS-26) on Monday conducted bilateral operations with Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Warramunga (FFH152), according to a Tuesday release. Warramunga also participated in the South China Sea patrol, and the two ships subsequently conducted trilateral operations with the French Navy frigate FS Vendémiaire (F734), according to a Wednesday release.

“During its deployments in the Pacific, the French Navy seizes opportunities to operate alongside other maritime forces in the region as it is committed to multilateralism. This exercise with the U.S. Navy and RAN is seen as another occasion to foster coordination and cooperation in combined activities,” said Cmdr. Sébastien Drouelle, commanding officer of Vendémiaire, in the release.

Meanwhile, Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel HMS Spey (P234) has been monitoring North Korean sanctions violations since mid-March and will continue into late April, according to a Japan Ministry of Defense release. A South Korean Ministry of National Defense release stated that Spey conducted joint sanctions enforcement patrols with South Korean warships and maritime patrol aircraft from early April to Thursday. The release also stated that the patrol is the first operation conducted between the two countries’ navies as a follow-up to the Downing Street Agreement at the 2023 Korea-U.K. summit.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense announced on Thursday that the U.K., U.S. and Japan will hold regular trilateral military exercises in the Indo-Pacific from 2025 to boost security in the region and further develop interoperability. The release, however, gave no details as to the forces the U.K. would be deploying or the specific exercises to be carried out.

New Zealand, meanwhile, announced on Wednesday that it will deploy a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-8A Poseidon to Japan to conduct North Korean sanctions violations surveillance. This is the sixth time New Zealand has carried out the mission since 2018, though this will be the first time it will be carried out by an RNZAF Poseidon, as previous missions were carried out by the now-retired RNZAF P-3K2 Orions.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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