On April 10-14, 2024, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr embarked on a working visit to the United States. While the trip was his fourth to the United States since assuming office in 2022, it was arguably the most impactful yet. Indeed, President Marcos traveled to Washington to attend the inaugural Japan-Philippines-U.S. trilateral summit. The historic meeting occurred against the backdrop of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region’s potential flashpoints – Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.

In his remarks at the start of the trilateral summit, President Marcos said the meeting is “borne not out of convenience nor of expediency, but as a natural progression of a deepening relations and robust cooperation amongst our three nations.” Beyond the powerful optics of the summit, the following are the key takeaways from the visit.

First, there is a real convergence of interests among the three countries. China and the broader question of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region loomed large over the summit. In their Joint Vision Statement, President Marcos, Prime Minister Kishida, and President Biden stressed their “serious concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) dangerous and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.” The three leaders also expressed their “strong opposition to any attempts by the PRC to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion in the East China Sea,” as well as underscored the “importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of global security and prosperity.”

The convergence of these strategic interests were on display when the three countries and Australia conducted Maritime Cooperative Activity (MCA) just days before the trilateral summit. Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez also announced that the proposed Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between Manila and Tokyo may be signed before 2024 ends. Should the RAA be signed, it will be third similar agreement that the Philippines will have, with Manila having Visiting Forces Agreements with both Washington and Canberra. RAA will provide the legal framework for the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) to, among others, conduct exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Indeed, this will provide another avenue for Manila to work alongside allies and partners amidst shared regional security challenges.

However, while there are similarities in the strategic interests of the three countries, there are also nuances in those interests. The three countries have a shared interest in ensuring that the China does not dominate the island chains in the Pacific. However, when examined closely, there are different degrees of emphasis on those interests, particularly for Manila and Washington. Indeed, the primary focus for the United States is freedom of navigation and overflight, while the Philippine interests are largely shaped around territorial integrity and maritime rights. In the case of Taiwan, there are also subtle differences in their respective One-China policy. As I have argued elsewhere, these subtle differences of interests could shape the policy complexities of both countries in the long run.

Second, the economic dimension of the partnership is crucial. The trilateral summit launched Luzon Economic Corridor initiative as part of the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI). As the first PGI initiative in the Indo-Pacific region, the Luzon Economic Corridor aims to support connectivity among Subic Bay, Clark, Manila, and Batangas in the Philippines. The three countries expressed their commitment “to accelerating coordinated investments in high-impact infrastructure projects, including rail; ports modernization; clean energy and semiconductor supply chains and deployments; agribusiness; and civilian port upgrades at Subic Bay.” Another trilateral event will be held at the sidelines of the Indo-Pacific Business Forum – to be held in Manila in May – that will promote the Luzon Economic Corridor.

Tokyo and Washington also announced their intention “to provide at least $8 million for Open Radio Access Network (RAN) field trials and the Asia Open RAN Academy based in Manila, to enable future commercial deployment and an open, interoperable, secure, reliable, and trusted information communications technology ecosystem in the Philippines.” This is on top of $9 million of prior American and Japanese investments in similar areas for the Philippines. The three leaders also unveiled their intention to develop a new semiconductor workforce development initiative in order “to help secure…semiconductor supply chains.”

These initiatives have security implications for the Philippines. The economic dimension is critical to ensure that that while Washington and Tokyo support Manila in the South China Sea, there are tangible signs of cooperation for the benefit of the Philippine public. Indeed, the administration of former Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte sought closer geopolitical confluence with Beijing and downscale the alliance with Washington with the hope of gaining more Chinese investments in the Philippines. Some former Philippine government officials continue to argue that a stronger stance against Beijing risks Chinese investment opportunities in the country – even though China largely failed to deliver on many of its economic commitments during Duterte’s presidency. Hence, there is a strong imperative for Tokyo, and Washington to deliver on their economic commitments to show that they produce results, and to effectively undercut the argument of pro-China elements in the Philippines.

The areas which the Luzon Economic Corridor seek to promote greater connectivity are important for Philippine national security and economic prosperity. While Metro Manila is the country’s political and economic core, as well as the location of the defense and diplomatic establishments, Batangas is host to the Philippine Air Force Education, Training, and Doctrine Command and a light industry and science park. Clark and Subic are previously the sites of the two largest U.S. military bases in the region and are now freeports and special economic zones.

Beijing is not incognizant of the significance of these areas to the Philippines and they have therefore been the sites of China’s influence operations in the country. Indeed, some of China’s major offshore gaming operations in the Philippines, which contributed to the influx of Chinese nationals in the country, have been setup near military camps. China has also been purchasing properties not only in Metro Manila, but also reportedly in the provinces of Pampanga and Zambales, where Clark and Subic are located respectively. China also sought to takeover a shipyard in Subic Bay shipyard until it was acquired by a U.S. firm. Indeed, there are political-security dimensions to economic initiatives. During the Duterte administration, Manila signed deals worth $ 3 billion to establish an energy complex in Batangas. The Duterte government also authorized the construction of Chinese cell towers inside some Philippine military installations. Thus, in the era of major power competition, it is important for Japan and the United States to provide alternatives to Chinese economic investments. Otherwise, the Philippines could potentially be more vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion.

Third, progress was achieved in the further institutionalization of alliance management. While media attention was focused on the trilateral summit, another historic event took place: the joint meeting of foreign and defense ministers, and national security advisers of the Philippines and the United States. During the inaugural 3+3 meeting, the leaders “discussed ways to deepen coordination regarding shared challenges in the [South China Sea], including repeated harassment of lawful Philippine operations by the [PRC].” Together with other existing platforms, the 3+3 dialogue is another effort to strengthen the management of the alliance. Further institutionalizing the alliance below the level of the top leadership is critical especially in the context of domestic political transitions. As was seen during the Duterte administration, the institutional ties between Manila and Washington played a crucial role in ensuring that the alliance remains intact amidst the efforts of a populist firebrand to upend long-standing Philippine foreign policy.

As expected, China blasted the trilateral summit, and criticized the Philippines for “seeking backing from non-regional countries as they infringe on China’s sovereignty and rights and make provocations at sea.”  China earlier accused the United States of using the Philippines as a “pawn a pawn to stir up trouble in the South China Sea.” In short, Beijing is effectively saying the Manila does not have any agency. However, such accusations discount the fact the Philippines has legitimate national interests which happen to compatible with the interests of like-minded countries. In other words, President Marcos’ historic trip to Washington and the initiatives stemming from the visit is a state’s exercise of agency amidst the complexity of the regional security environment.

About Mico Galang

Mico A. Galang is a member of the Young Leaders Program, Pacific Forum (Hawaii, United States). His research interests include the international relations of the Indo-Pacific, territorial and maritime disputes, and Philippine foreign and security policies. The views expressed are the author’s alone.