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Trilateral Maritime Partners?

The Philippines has the potential to be a key maritime partner for Japan and the United States.

The Philippines’ unique geographic position in maritime Asia makes it a valuable partner for both the United States and Japan. But generating greater maritime domain awareness, enhancing ‘good order’ at sea and protecting vital sea lines of communication (SLOC) in this regional common will likely require a Trilateral Maritime Partnership if all involved want to ensure they can share in the potential security and trade benefits.

For Japan and the Philippines, the vertical archipelagic chain, which stretches over 6,500 kilometres from the southern portion of the Philippines to Japan’s Hokkaido in the north, encapsulates the heart of the region’s most vital SLOCs, and borders all of its major bodies of water. Major trade routes from the Indian Ocean must pass through the Philippines archipelago and the southern portion of this expansive chain. To the north, Japan’s Ryukyu Islands pepper the waters south of Okinawa all the way to Taiwan, creating a series of straits that Chinese commercial and naval mariners must navigate on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

The sea is a lifeline for Japan, with virtually all of the country’s trade travelling by sea. The Philippines, meanwhile, isn’t merely a maritime nation, but more a ‘thousand island economy,’ and its unique geographic position in maritime Asia enhances its strategic importance to maritime trade. Finally, the United States has a shared interest in the security of maritime Asia. Just as the maritime domain is a ‘highway’ for commerce to travel, it’s also a venue for the United States to project its global military power.

Because the Philippines economic and internal security situation has left it with few resources to devote to its maritime security, the primary focus of a Trilateral Partnership in the near-term should be on identifying and raising awareness of shared maritime interests, while working to build up the capacity of the Philippines to control its maritime environment. This can happen in a few ways:

Sustained Engagement

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The Philippines and Japan have established a regular Political-Military Dialogue at the Track 1 level. These talks should continue, and include specific discussions on maritime issues. In the future, the basis for a Maritime Partnership should be a bi-annual Track 1.5 dialogue that incorporates government and non-government officials across all levels of the security-maritime spectrum. Such a dialogue will serve to raise awareness of the interconnected maritime interests all three states share, while creating space to identify new avenues for cooperation at the Track 1 level.

Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness

Enhancing maritime awareness in the Philippines archipelago should be a top priority. This has already started under the Philippines Coast Watch South (CWS) programme, with the government constructing 17 coast watches in the Philippines’ southern waters. Plans are now underway to construct 30 more monitoring stations as part of the broader Coast Watch Philippines (CWP) initiative. The United States, for its part, is giving substantial support to this effort, and Japan should also fully support the CWP programme as it matures.

Building Naval Capacity Along with land-based surveillance, the Philippines must develop the capacity of its Navy and Coast Guard fleet. This would mean not just procuring new ships to replace its aging fleet, but also enhancing maritime training and investing in the development of naval officers. The US Coast Guard recently sold a retired Hamilton-class cutter to the Philippines Navy. As the Hamilton cutters are retired, the United States should consider selling vessels to the Philippines. Japan should also investigate ships it could transfer to the Philippines.

At the inaugural US-Philippines Strategic Dialogue in January, the United States pledged to help increase the archipelago’s maritime capacity. In the future, both countries should work to harmonize their efforts alongside the Philippines in a more formal maritime training programme that should include regular staff college exchanges and senior officer engagement. The three nations should also initiate an annual trilateral naval exercise that focuses on shared maritime concerns.

As the Japan-Philippines archipelago and the surrounding areas promise to take on even more prominence in global affairs, these recommendations will be the first steps in creating a partnership that can ensure their maritime environment will remain tranquil. It behoves leaders in Washington, Tokyo, and Manila to take note of their shared interests and begin to collaboratively shape their maritime future.