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The Trilateral Deal Between the US, Japan, and the Philippines: Impact on Security and Economics

April 18, 202423:16

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we are joined by Ambassador Kristie Kenney, former senior US diplomat who served as the 32nd Counselor of the US Department of State and Ambassador to the Republic of Ecuador, the Philippines, and Thailand. She discusses the first-ever US-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit held in Washington on April 11th. Kenney explains how the summit highlights the importance of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and could change the military and economic security dynamic in the region going forward.


  • The is an unedited transcript

    Hello, I'm John Milewski. Welcome back to another episode of Wilson Center, now a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guest today is Kristie Kenney. . She is a former senior U.S. diplomat who served as the 32nd counselor of the United States Department of State.

    She also served as ambassador to the Republic of Ecuador, to the Philippines, and most recently to Thailand. Ambassador Kenney is a recipient of the secretary of state's Distinguished Service Award and held the nation's highest diplomatic rank of career ambassador and the United States Foreign Service. She joins us today to talk about the aftermath of the U.S., Japan, Philippines trilateral summit held in Washington, D.C..

    Ambassador Kennedy, welcome. Thank you for joining us. Thank you. It's great to be with you and my friends from the Wilson Center. Well, thanks. We really are pleased to have you here. So let me start with just a general observation about the significance of the meeting and the agreement that emerged from it. Yeah, thanks. Let me start, if you don't mind, by taking us back on a little bit of history and back.

    no, that's terrific. We love history here at the center. Not everyone follows these issues perhaps as closely as I do. But first of all, important to remember that Japan and the Philippines are both treaty allies of the United States in Asia. They're among our five treaty allies, and they're both fellow democracies. But the relationship, particularly between the Philippines and Japan, we turn back to a time before we were alive 80 years ago.

    Japan was a brutal occupier of the Philippines in World War Two. The United States liberated the Philippines from Japan. The Philippines had been a colony of the United States. They became a free, independent country upon that liberation. But the Japanese have worked since that time tirelessly, patiently, carefully to rebuild or to build a relationship with the Philippines. And it's been impressive to watch from going from being perhaps the most reviled country in the Philippines to where we are today.

    Talking about trilateral meetings among the three leaders of our countries is is kind of breathtaking. And I give the Japanese huge credit for facing this head on, for being honest, for being investors, for offering development assistance and now taking this extra step. So it's it's to me really exciting and a real reflection. I think, of the work the Japanese have done to rebuild their relationship with the Philippines.

    Obviously, the U.S. Japanese relationship was built, rebuilt years earlier, and they have now been a close partner and increasingly a global ally. And I think that's reflected in these meetings and a couple of things I'd say about it are three nations represent a half billion people, billion with a B, So that's a big population swath to have. We're all also, if you will, Pacific powers.

    The United States, we sometimes forget, has a very large Pacific coast and a lot of interest in what happens in Asia. Japan and the Philippines are both island states. So there's a lot we share in common. And to have these meetings wasn't just a question of the three leaders meeting last year, 2023, The national security advisers of the three countries met several times in person and virtually the foreign ministers also met virtually and in person.

    So there's been a lot of work to get to the stage where the three leaders sat down here in Washington a little less than a week ago and came up with a pretty ambitious agenda. So you mentioned that the U.S. and Japan relationship has been growing stronger since the end of World War Two, and Americans have a good handle on that, probably less so about the Philippines.

    So could you talk from the perspective of the United States about the importance of the relationship with the Philippines in particular? Well, the relationship with the Philippines is actually an incredibly close relationship, and part of that stems from our time. You know, back 80 years ago as a colonial power. But the truthful matter is there's a lot we have in common where democracies were English speaking countries.

    And there are maybe 4 to 5 million Filipinos or Filipino Americans who live in the United States. I think if you go into any large room, a classroom, an auditorium at the Wilson Center, and you ask anybody who's a Philippine American or Filipino here, you'll get hands up in any gathering. So I think there's a real tendency to view each other as friends.

    The Filipinos, for example, are huge basketball fans. The time when I was in the Philippines, the foreign minister would start every meeting with me, talking about the results of the NBA the night before. You know, there's there's a lot we share in common. And in fact, there are not only American businesses and fast food chains all the way up to sophisticated technology in the Philippines.

    But if you drive around the United States, particularly on the West Coast, you will find Filipino fast food restaurants, You will find jollibee's. They're kind of version of a McDonald's, you know. So there is a lot that connects our two countries. And over the years, you remember the United States had bases in the Philippines a number of years ago that has been discontinued.

    But we now have in today's world an agreement with the Philippines where we have access to certain ports and bases in the Philippines, which are really useful from everything from humanitarian assistance to some of our operations in Afghanistan. More recently, places like that, the Filipinos fought alongside of us in Vietnam. So there's a a really strong and close cultural people to people relationship in addition to security relationships and economic relations.

    Yeah, I'm glad I'm glad you bring that up because, you know, we talk about geopolitics and security and big issues, but on a daily basis, the cultures and the way we exchange cultural touchpoints, whether it's fast food or movies or whatever, is almost more important on a daily basis than anything else. And, you know, I'd add there a couple of pieces you don't even think about.

    Several of the famous designers, dress designers are Filipino. There you go. So there are a number of touchstones throughout our two countries. And by the way, that makes meetings between our leaders and changes in our governments so much easier to weather because you have this strong people to people relationships, you know? Yeah, well, shifting from that back to the geopolitics, let me ask you about the China and the South China Sea dispute.

    And in many ways, when you look at coverage from around the world of the summit, it was in under the frame of a direct challenge to China. Can you talk to us about that?

    So the Chinese have been so aggressive in the South China Sea, you know, using water cannons and lasers on Filipino patrol boats, Filipino fishing boats.

    And I think that aggressiveness and the concern as to how they might react against others is really what pulled the the dynamics for this Japanese Filipino American summit. And coming out of it was a very strong statement on, you know, abeyance of the rules of of law, international order and a condemnation of aggressive actions by the Chinese in the South China Sea.

    But there were also a couple of pieces of follow on which I think will be not difficult to implement and could have some great benefits for all three countries, but probably most significantly for the Filipinos who are the less developed country of the three. And the country that feels the most aggression. And so one of those agreements was to continue training for the Filipino Coast Guard capacity building.

    The Japanese have now donated 12, I think, patrol boats to the Filipinos for their coast guard. Remember, the Philippines is an island of seven, a nation, 7000 islands. So a Coast Guard is is really kind of got to be top of their agenda, whether you're talking Chinese aggression or unregulated fishing search and rescue. And so coming out of this was an agreement to do more trilateral role training, very specifically to put Japanese and Filipinos on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the near future.

    The three countries plus Australia did some joint maritime drills, gosh, about a week, ten days ago now, and they've agreed to do more of that. They've also agreed to a trilateral steering group on maritime security and some enhanced training on maritime law enforcement. You know, the United States has a pretty good history as Japan of unregulated fishing. How do you get poachers?

    How do you do that? And so all of those things, which I think will not be difficult to implement, will be takeaways going forward. They also agree to do enhanced disaster assistance, humanitarian training. Both Japan and the Philippines suffer from typhoons on a regular basis. It goes with their geography. And so to work on that and the United States has agreed we will pre-position humanitarian relief supplies at various of these military bases in the Philippines.

    And finally, out of this, the United States has a long agreement with the Philippines on our visiting forces agreement, which governs when we put ships into port. If we do exercises in the Philippines, in Philippine territory. The Japanese are now negotiating, adding and expect to soon sign a similar agreement with the Filipinos, which will allow the Japanese Self-defense forces to similarly use ports in the Philippines.

    Again, enhancing that cooperation, enhancing the capacity of the Filipinos and serving as a force multiplier for all three of our countries. Do you see Great potential in economic growth in the relationship among the nations? Well, I do. And in fact, the second piece of this was an economic piece, and it is by far the most ambitious sort of economic agenda I've seen coming out of, frankly, a bilateral trilateral meeting in a while.

    And I think it will be the most complicated to implement. I'm excited about it because I like the fact that we build a relationship among the three countries that isn't just based on security economics of every one of us. And to have an economic component, you know, enhances economics for the United States, for Japan, for the Philippines. It brings us all more prosperity.

    So coming out of that, the three countries agreed to develop a corridor in the Philippines on the main island of Luzon, and in that they will develop roads, ports, infrastructure, a semiconductor industry. They are looking to build clean energy throughout the Philippines, an innovation economy. And and while some of that sounds harder to do, the truth of the matter is Filipinos are, by nature, extremely innovative.

    They're creative. And there are already are a number of research and design facilities from American companies located in the Philippines, taking advantage of an English speaking, educated population. So I think that's something to build on. And specifically the three countries called out the semiconductor industry with an idea of diversifying the supply around the world, building resilient supply chains for all of us.

    But there's also the clean energy component. And I actually ran into the Philippine economy energy minister while he was in town last week, and he's very excited about it. You know, they already have an extraordinary wind power capacity. Obviously, being a tropical nation, they've got a solar power capacity and they're also looking at more hydropower and looking to learn from best practices from our three countries on a peaceful, clean nuclear power.

    So, you know, helping the Filipinos become very solidly a middle income country. They've got good growth rates, but they really need to build a more inclusive economy and one that's forward looking that has more modern technologies, resilient supply chains. So that's all fascinating to me. Now, I know you want to ask, how hard is this going to be to implement?

    Well, that's always the challenge, right? And I think it may be I've talked to officials, American officials involved, and they say the easy part is that three countries already have a good business relationship. They know each other well. American companies have been in the Philippines for years. Ditto Japanese companies. Secretary of Commerce of the U.S. just led a trade mission out there, trade and investment mission within the last month.

    So there's a lot of interest. Again, many American countries are looking at where they can go and diversify overseas. They also say that these projects, while they'll need to be controlled by steering committee, they don't have to be joint. So the Japanese could invest in a port or a railroad, whereas the United States could invest in semiconductor training for Filipinos.

    So there are pieces that I think could be quite easily put together. I still think the amount of energy from all three countries is an oversight to make sure the projects are complementary, that they link up, that they are within the framework will be daunting. There's a lot of good energy behind it, and they're going to have their first trilateral promotional event, if you will, at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the end of May.

    So that'll be a real, I think, litmus test for what is the interest. Are there multinational banks and institutions that are interested in financing the private sector interest? How much each government can contribute? So that's an exciting and ambitious and if I dare say so innovative piece of it. I think it may be a lot longer term in terms of seeing benefits than the security side, which I think is quite easily implementable and can be easily built upon.

    They talk the talk now. We'll see if they can. What exactly? The devil's always in the details. Yeah, well, about that. You know, based on your analysis today, based on the readouts from the three countries, based on reporting around the world, it's hard to imagine a more successful summit than what was just happened. But was there any agenda items?

    Was there anything left on the table or were there things that still need to be ironed out at some future time? That's a great question. I didn't hear of any. I actually talked to all three sides and I didn't hear anybody complaining. They were all glowing. The Filipino president, who I also saw at the end of the week, was just glowing.

    It also helped that both sides had bilateral meetings with the United States. And so the Japanese, you know, had a state visit with a meeting, and then the Filipinos had a meeting with President Biden. A meeting with the secretary of state, the national security adviser, meetings with secretary of defense. So there was a robust series of bilateral. And so some of these issues that I think might not have been in the trilateral agenda were included bilaterally.

    There are a couple of things that that I didn't see included, and maybe the trilateral isn't ready for those yet. I could see at some point the three countries could harness their collective energy and power to be helpful on other issues. All three of our countries are very interested in what happens, for example, in Myanmar. Or what if there's a natural disaster in a neighboring ASEAN country?

    You know, would the three of our countries then be well prepared after they've done all this trilateral training to assist? I noted the Australians participated in their exercises with the Filipinos, Japanese and Americans ten days ago. You know, is there a role for the Japanese, the Australians, to join this partnership at some stage? So I think the future could be quite exciting.

    None of those topics, to the best of my knowledge, were included, and I think they could be perhaps if this becomes a much more regular partnership as it looks pretty poised to do. What ask you about the bigger picture? You know, I think as we sit here, I'm thinking of what's happening in the Middle East and the escalation between Israel and Iran.

    And it highlights how difficult it's been for the United States, as much as it's talked about the so-called pivot to the Pacific or however you want to characterize it, how difficult that is because of these hotspots in the globe. Where do we stand in that context? I know the Biden administration continues to try to look west. How do how do how do you take when you look at that, at the big scheme of things, what do you see?

    You know, you you put your finger on it. Every administration has ideas and visions. And certainly President Biden has has wanted to continue what had been a theme, I think, through several administrations, both Republican and Democrat, of expanding our interest in Asia. And at the same time, recognizing both the need to manage our Chinese relationship responsibly. But the shadow that casts over much of the rest of Asia.

    But the world intervenes. You know, we have the situation in the Middle East, which you and I have been watching the headlines the last few days is pretty hard. Not to be concerned. You've got a war in Ukraine that involves a lot of refugees scattered in fellow European countries and obviously a serious conflict with Russia. You have famine in Sudan.

    You know, you and I could make a long list. I think what I find encouraging about this trilateral and I'll get to the bigger Asia picture is that there is a role for those who are not in government. So the role, for example, on the business side of this trilateral summit to invest, to build ports, to build railroads, to enhance a workforce in the Philippines that can do semiconductor work, to build clean energy and share our expertise.

    You know, that is not going to be it may be under a government steering group, but that's going to be driven by the private sector, and they tend to be far less buffeted, I think, by the global crisis of the day. But I do think that all of Asia has has had good attention, certainly from President Biden and his team.

    But it's hard to keep that regular pace of meetings and visits. So I think they've tried hard to do so. And, you know, any new administration will find the same challenge. It's hard to keep that when your attention must also be faced with you know, immense serious global crises that demand urgent attention on behalf of the American people and, frankly, the rest of the globe.

    So I think that's the challenge for every administration, is how do you do that? How do you make sure some portion of the leadership looks at the rest of the world, whether it's Asia, Latin America or Africa? But we all know the big crises of the day that have sort of immense global implications. We'll take 80% of the effort.

    That's why meetings like this are good to get on the calendar and make happen, because it does force people to sit down, you know, shut out the other crises of the day for even an hour or two, and focus on what we're doing with our friends in the Asia Pacific about that that long term prognosis. You know, last week on the program, our guest was David Sanger, who has a new book out about new cold wars.

    And and I think one analyst put it this way in talking about China and the U.S. is focused on now, of course, Russia's invasion of of Ukraine. And the analyst said think about it this way. Russia is the storm, but China is climate change. And I wonder when you look at the Indo-Pacific and, you know, I think of these three seas floating around in my head, cooperation, competition, confrontation.

    What do you see as the defining of those three seas? I know there will be overlap, but it's never just black and white. But in the near term and in the next decade or so, what do you see defining the region? You know, I don't think anyone wants a war with China, and I don't think China wants a war with anyone either.

    So there's going to be competition, and I think it's managing that competition responsibly. I mean, let's be fair. We all have competition for issues, whether it's hearts and minds or whether it's, you know, buying American products or you buy someone else's products. And so there is that competition is there. And I think that may be the defining term.

    And the hope I would have I'd like to actually combine two year terms is see it as a cooperative competition. You know, the Chinese are interested and we've seen this in recent times, but going back even a decade in looking at cooperation on on illegal narcotics, for example, things that affect their population and the population of other Asian countries of the United States, you know, they're interested in looking at climate change.

    We might have different perspectives on how to deal with that. But again, with other Asian nations, they're interested in that. So there are things that interest all of us. We all are worried about jobs, economy, education. And so, you know, I think everyone wants to be able to, on some level, sell their products to the other country, you know, do some kind of international trade, whether it's a formal trade agreement or just the ability to sell goods and services or tourism to each other's countries.

    So I think it's going to be a cooperative competition, and I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that's actually something that could sustain us pretty well for the next 10 to 15 years As we chart through a globe that has increasingly global competition, a globe that's concerned about the proliferation of weapons. If you're in Asia, you're also looking at North Korea, a nuclear power with a very unstable leadership, and people who are also looking at the forces of non-state actors, the drug traffickers, the people who trafficking human beings, illegal wildlife trafficking, and finally, then the impetus of things like climate change.

    Well, I appreciate your optimism with a heaping helping of reality mixed in as well. So thank you, Ambassador Kennedy, for joining us today. It was my great pleasure to add that as a diplomat, I'm always an optimist. Diplomats always think there's a way to solve things. So thank goodness for diplomats, friends from the Wilson Center. Thank you very much.

    Our guest has been Ambassador Kristie Kenney We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thanks for your time and interest.



Amb. Kristie Kenney

Ambassador Kristie Kenney

Former US Ambassador to Thailand, Philippines, and Ecuador

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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more