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US-Philippines-Japan Summit to Contain China Described as a “Council of War”

The first-of-its-kind summit comes as the US moves to expand its military presence around the South China Sea.

President Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the White House on Thursday, the first meeting of its kind, which comes as the U.S. moves to expand its military presence in the South China Sea to counter China. The Philippines has deepened military ties with both the United States and Japan in recent years as maritime confrontations with China have escalated. The trilateral summit at the White House resembled a “council of war,” according to Filipino scholar Walden Bello. He says the U.S. is the primary driver of tensions with China, building up its military footprint in the region as Pentagon officials openly muse about war, while China has focused primarily on its economic reach. “This militarization of the Pacific is very dangerous,” says Bello.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden hosted a first-of-its-kind trilateral summit at the White House Thursday with Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The summit came as the U.S. moves to expand its military presence around the South China Sea. Launching the White House meeting with the three leaders, Biden affirmed that a 1950s-era mutual defense treaty binding Washington and Manila would require the U.S. to respond to an armed attack on the Philippines in the South China Sea.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The United States’ defense commitments to Japan and to the Philippines are ironclad. They’re ironclad. As I’ve said before, any attack on Philippine aircraft, vessels or armed forces in the South China Sea would invoke our mutual defense treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: The Philippines under Marcos has deepened military ties with both the United States and Japan as maritime run-ins with China in the South China Sea have escalated. At Thursday’s meeting, Marcos reaffirmed Manila’s strong ties with Washington.

PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS JR.: We meet today as friends and partners bound by a shared vision and pursuit of a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific. It is a partnership borne not out of convenience nor of expediency, but as a natural progression of a deepening relation and robust cooperation amongst our three countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcos has allowed the number of Philippine bases American soldiers can access to nearly double under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

The trilateral summit sparked protests in Manila, where demonstrators marched in the streets to denounce the expanding U.S. presence in the Philippines. This is Mong Palatino, secretary-general of BAYAN, an alliance of leftist groups in the Philippines, speaking at the protest.

MONG PALATINO: The trilateral summit will lead to the installation of foreign military bases, intensified foreign military buildup, and it will also lead to the escalation of conflict in the West Philippine Sea and in Asia-Pacific.

AMY GOODMAN: Thursday’s trilateral summit came a day after President Biden hosted a state visit for Japanese Prime Minister Kishida during which he unveiled a historic upgrade in military ties.

For more, we’re joined by Walden Bello, acclaimed Filipino scholar, activist, former vice-presidential candidate in the Philippines. He just returned from Honolulu, where he was attending a conference against militarism in the Asia-Pacific region. He co-founded Focus on the Global South and is an adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he’s joining us from today.

Walden, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. You’ve just returned from this Hawaii anti-militarism conference just as President Biden holds this trilateral summit with the leaders of the Philippines as well as Japan at the White House. Can you talk about your concerns about this meeting?

WALDEN BELLO: Thank you very much, Amy, for inviting me.

Yes, this trilateral summit is something that really resembles something like a council of war, you know, in which the emperor brings his local chieftains from the Pacific to come and move in a way to raise the military containment of China. So, the excuse for this has been the skirmishes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, or what we call the West Philippine Sea. But the larger picture really has been it’s another step in the U.S.’s driven strategic containment of China. So, this is — you know, in my sense, this is really a step in a kind of provocative strategy of containing China at this point in time, and it is creating tremendous alarm throughout the Pacific.

And I was just in this anti-military conference in the Pacific, in Honolulu, where we had activists and researchers from throughout the region coming together to share our concerns that, you know, over the last five years, but particularly over the last three years, the U.S. has been very, very aggressive in its push to so-called contain China. So, we are now talking about a region where tensions are very high, and I think if this continues, things could become really, really hairy.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, interestingly, President Biden just spoke with President Xi of China on the phone for almost two hours not so long ago, but then held this trilateral summit. The headline in The New York Times, “Biden Aims to Project United Front Against China at White House Summit.” So, talk about what is happening between the United States and China and how the Philippines, and especially activists in the Philippines, — we just heard protesters — and Japan are dealing with this.

WALDEN BELLO: Well, you know, the United States has really moved in a strategy of containing China, as it puts it, and the — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are on the frontlines of this effort of the United States. Japan is, for all intents and purposes, still an occupied country and has been very subservient to Washington. And the Philippines under President Marcos has practically outsourced its defense and foreign policy to the United States.

Now, I served in the Philippine Congress together with Marcos, and I would just like to say at this point that he has very little notion of the national interests of the Philippines. His main concern really has been to safeguard the $10 billion worth of fortune of the Marcos family that are spread throughout the United States, as well as allied states of the United States. So, the alliance with the United States on the part of the Marcos family is really driven by personal economic interests.

And Japan, on the other hand, has been always subservient to U.S. policy. So, we are seeing the United States, in fact, foritfy, move to upgrade its military deployments throughout the Pacific at this point in time. You’re talking about a hundred bases, at least, in Japan. You have about 60 bases in South Korea. You have nine bases in the Philippines. There’s Guam. So you have this iron steel of containment that is moving against China, pushed by the United States.

More than that, NATO has expanded to the South China Sea. Vessels from the U.K., from Germany, from France now regularly visit the area at the behest of the United States. Australia is there. In fact, just four days ago, we had this announcement of U.S., Australian, Philippine and Japanese ships getting together and deploying themselves, a so-called patrol, near the territorial waters of China. So, this militarization of the Pacific is very dangerous. You know, when you’re talking about NATO ships in East Asian waters, you are really talking about a very coordinated strategy at this point that’s being pushed by Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: In other news from the region, the U.S. has announced plans to expand a Navy base in Papua New Guinea, where China has also attempted to increase its footprint. The significance of this, Walden Bello?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, yes. I mean, we will see that the United States will undertake such moves in the South Pacific. And we’ve got to realize also that the United States has intelligence bases in Australia. And we are talking about a situation whereby the Chinese moves have been mainly economic in nature. In fact, what we’re talking about is, at this point in time, there’s only one Chinese overseas base, and that’s in Djibouti in the Indian Ocean, and this is mainly meant to be against piracy. But the United States is expanding its bases footprint throughout in the effort to contain China, as it puts it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Walden, if you can talk about — more about the protests on the ground in the Philippines? And I’m looking at an article from AP of December about Thitu Island, the Philippines inaugurating a new coast guard monitoring base on an island occupied by Filipino forces in the disputed South China Sea. And the significance of this area of surveillance, working with the United States?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, you know, the situation in the South China Sea, which we call the West Philippine Sea, this — China has made a number of moves in the area which have been quite illegal and has threatened Philippine fishermen. And the push of China has, in fact, elicited tremendous concern among Filipinos. And, you know, this moves of declaring the South China Sea — 90% of the South China Sea as Chinese territory has been roundly denounced throughout the region.

But the one thing that we really must put into perspective is that these moves are mainly dictated by a defensive strategy of China trying to expand its defensive perimeter outside, because the problem is that the South China Sea, it borders the industrial infrastructure of China in the coastal areas of south and southeastern China. And that is very vulnerable in terms of the Chinese industrial capacity. And what we are talking about is that that area is very much threatened by hundreds of U.S. bases, from Japan, Okinawa, you know, the Philippines. And the 7th Fleet is deployed constantly in the area at this point in time, and it operates up to 12 miles of China’s territorial waters. The U.S. now has assigned about five carrier task forces to the Pacific, out of its 11 carrier task forces. And you are talking about a situation where it’s a very, very coordinated naval offensive strategy at this point in time.

Now, the problem here is that, as the Vietnamese complained to me when I visited Vietnam when I was still a member of the Congress of the Philippines, is that U.S. and Chinese ships are playing chicken, in which they swerve at the last minute. But the Vietnamese raised the concern: What if they miscalculate and hit each other? And a ship collision can easily escalate into a higher form of conflict, because there are no rules of the game over there. So, this is the kind of tension that is being pushed by the very aggressive strategy of the United States.

Now, just one more word on China. What we have pushed, or what I have pushed regarding this is demilitarization of the South China Sea, that China and the ASEAN countries should really negotiate to demilitarize that area. And that’s the route China should go through, instead of unilaterally seizing territories out of defensive concerns. And I think that’s still a possibility at this point in time. And we hope that China and the ASEAN countries, the Southeast Asian countries, will in fact move to demilitarize and denuclearize the South China Sea.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Walden Bello, you have a new piece in CounterPunch that’s headlined “Unjust Wars and a Just Peace.” You write, quote, “The three major wars or conflicts that are ongoing today demonstrate the volatility of the intersection between the local and the global.

“In the Hamas-Israeli conflict, we see how the maintenance of the Israeli settler-colonial state is intertwined with the preservation of the global hegemony of the United States.

“In the war in Ukraine, a bloody war of attrition between two countries was provoked by Washington’s push to expand NATO to a country of the former Soviet Union.

“In the South China Sea, we are witnessing how disputes over territory and natural resources have been elevated to a global conflict by the U.S. effort to maintain its global hegemony against China, to which it is losing the geoeconomic competition but over which it continues to enjoy absolute military superiority,” unquote.

If you can, finally, summarize your views on this, and particularly talk about your view, as co-founder of Focus on the Global South, of what’s happening in Gaza?

WALDEN BELLO: Well, you know, again, this is a situation whereby it’s only U.S. military support, tremendous support on the part of the United States in terms of providing weaponry, that is enabling the Israelis and the Israeli state to commit genocide in Gaza. And the U.S., at this point in time, the only secure ally it has in the Middle East is Israel. And so, we have this intersection of the global interests of the United States and the apartheid state of Israel’s interest in destroying the Palestinians coming together here.

And, of course, you have in the Pacific — we have already talked about that, and in the Ukraine, too. So, the United States is very much involved in bringing local conflicts to the global stage. And the thing about this, Amy, is that in terms of the global economy, China has now outstripped the United States. It accounts for 28% of GDP growth from 2013 to 2018, whereas the United States only accounts for a 14%. But the United States enjoys tremendous, absolute military superiority over China in all dimensions. And China is not engaged in an arms race with the United States. The latest figures from SIPRI are that the United States spends something like the order of $877 billion in military spending, and China is only about $292 billion. So it’s three times what China spends. And even the Pentagon — even the Pentagon says that the orientation of China is of what it calls the strategic defensive. Not even the Pentagon at this point in time claims that it is an offensive strategy.

So, my only last point here is that Taiwan has often come into the news about the U.S. role in defending Taiwan. Well, let me put it this way: China would be foolish to invade Taiwan. In fact, that’s never been in the cards. China’s policy has always been the sort of cross-border economic integration between Taiwan and China, which means investment integration. That’s been the way that they’ve been pushing for unification. And why is Taiwan being really used at this point, when in fact the threat of invasion is not there at all? Well, as far as I can see, Taiwan is being used as the excuse to build up the Philippines as a launching pad for the containment of China. So, this is sort of the dynamics that Washington is really pushing at this point in time.

And as I said, if there’s one major threat to peace in the Asia-Pacific region, which a number of us in Honolulu came together to really try to coordinate this effort at this point to really push back against this threat of war, it is the United States’ very, very aggressive moves in the area. I would just like to say, Amy, that you have the admiral — General Minihan of the Air Mobility Command just say a few months ago, in a widely quoted memo, that he feels in his gut that the U.S. and China will be at war in 2025. That’s the sort of rhetoric, that’s the sort of mentality that Washington has been inducing among its military commanders. And that’s really very dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: Walden Bello, I want to thank you so much for being with us, acclaimed Filipino scholar, activist, co-founder of Focus on the Global South, adjunct professor of sociology now at Binghamton University in New York. We’ll also link to your latest piece in CounterPunch headlined “Unjust Wars and a Just Peace.”

When we come back, Ukraine’s parliament has passed a contested bill to expand the military draft, as the Russian invasion stretches into its third year. We’ll get the latest from award-winning New Yorker magazine war correspondent Luke Mogelson. Stay with us.

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