Trilateral Militarization: From Missiles to Nukes

The trilateral militarization of the US, Japan and the Philippines has officially started. From missiles to nuclearization, it could cast a dark shadow over the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

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In the Philippines, the proponents of the trilateral alliance frame it as a response to the “threat of assertive China.” In reality, the unwarranted trilateral alliance seems to be the result of a longstanding US maritime counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign, resting on the work of the US Navy Department and other US interests.

The purpose of the campaign has been to escalate the South China Sea friction in international media to justify trilateral militarization.

In the Philippines, the concern for escalation is fairly widespread. On Friday former president Duterte warned in Chinese media that “the US is trying to provoke a war between China and the Philippines,” expressing his hope that the Philippines can change course to “resolve issues through dialogue and negotiation.”

The trilateral alliance seems to be a prelude to a massive rearmament drive that has potential to undermine and possibly collapse the expected Asian Century of peace and development.  

Nuclearization via QUAD and AUKUS              

In March 2023, US President Joe Biden held a press conference on the AUKUS partnership with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, California. A glimpse of the Asian future was provided by the nuclear-powered USS Missouri submarine, which was visibly in the background. It was meant to be a signal to China.

Ironically, the net effect is rising nuclearization in the South China Sea by countries that are not located in the ASEAN territories. The US-led multilateral security framework targeting China rests on the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) between the US, Japan, Australia and India. AUKUS is more actionable. It seeks to hem in China’s moves with a nested military network, including sharing advanced military technologies like nuclear-powered submarines. The first subs will be built in the UK by late 2030s and in Australia after 2040.

In the interest of time, the US plans to forward-deploy Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, coupled with the UK’s similar Astute-class subs, to a naval base near Perth in Western Australia, already by 2027. AUKUS is also likely to expand in 2024 or early 2025. Japan and Canada are in line to join the so-called pillar 2 section of the AUKUS agreement, while US is courting South Korea and New Zealand.

From the Chinese viewpoint, the US is expanding the AUKUS military alliance by “forming a mini-NATO in Asia, which poses unprecedented threats and challenges to the region’s prosperity and stability.” The track-record – from Iraq and Afghanistan to Ukraine and Gaza – is not assuring.

But nuclearization takes time. Hence, the missiles.

Missiles and militarization             

As veteran political analyst Francisco Tatad writes, “Marcos sees China as the source of the danger, but he does not say why our two countries should be going to war with each other over some pieces of stone in the vast disputed sea.” Tatad asks, “Whose war must we prepare for?”

The question about “whose war” remains blurry, unlike the question “how” that war could begin. Due to the 2019 expiration of the previously banned Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the U.S. is planning to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific already in 2024, thus establishing its first arsenal in the region since the end of the Cold War.

Missiles over South China Sea?

The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) launches a Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) during a live-fire test of the ship’s aegis weapons system (Pacific Ocean, June 19, 2014). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Originally developed by the huge US defense contractor Raytheon, which has played a key role in Ukraine’s devastation, these missiles feature land-based versions of the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) and the Tomahawk cruise missile, with ranges between 500 and 2,700 kilometers (photo right). Tomahawks in particular have been used from the Gulf War to Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Reportedly, the U.S. Army will send the intermediate-range missile units primarily to the U.S. territory of Guam, looking for more forward deployment to Asian allies in a contingency. These allies, like Philippines, are likely expected to be open to “rotational deployments in crises.”

Responding to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea will require missiles that can reach targets in those critical waterways or the Chinese mainland. This means an extended deployment near the “first island chain,” which stretches from Japan’s Okinawa islands to Taiwan and, yes, the Philippines.

A decade of steps toward militarization

The US Naval Department’s involvement seems to have intensified since the mid-2010s, when the late foreign secretary Albert F. del Rosario had a key role in the creation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which opened the country to U.S. military, ships, and planes; for the first time since 1991. A year later, Rosario met Obama’s then-deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken in Manila, aiming at bigger bilateral commitments.

Toward deeper military alignments

(Left) Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario and then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Manila in Nov. 2015. (Center) Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin, Jr. and INDOPACOM Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino in Aug, 2021. (Right) Gen. Romeo Brawner, Jr., Chief of Staff and Adm. Aquilino in Mar. 2024.  Source: DFA, DFA-OPCD.

President Duterte’s electoral triumph in 2016 caused a six-year breather in the ambitious plans. Militarization began to move ahead in 2021, when Admiral John C. Aquilino, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), met foreign secretary Locsin, Jr. Adm. Aquilino welcomed bilateral progress as “a huge leap forward” and US press release described the ties as an “alliance.”

Aquilino’s calls matter. The INDOPACOM is the largest of six geographic combatant commands of the US Armed Forces. It is responsible for all U.S. military activities in the Indo-Pacific region.

But nothing was set in stone, yet. President Marcos Jr had pledged building on Duterte legacy and nurturing strong ties with both the US and China, like most ASEAN nations. But these pledges had to go. They were misaligned with the Big Defense’s plans for Manila.

In October 2022, Senator Imee Marcos, chair of Philippine foreign relations committee, still pled in Washington: “Do not make us choose between the United States and China.” But prior to the address, her younger brother, President Marcos had met President Biden and discussed “the full breadth of issues in the alliance.” Subsequently, major electoral pledges turned upside down and trilateral mobilization became an inflated response to a deflated problem.

Rightly, columnist Rigoberto Tiglao wondered why the Philippines should go to war with China, its biggest trading partner, over a dispute that “is solely over Ayungin Shoal, a permanently submerged, useless small area.”

Militarization benefited the Pentagon and the Big Defense. But what exactly did Manila get in return, except for risks?

More bases, more targets: 9, 15, or 20 sites?

In spring early 2023, President Marcos Jr. granted U.S. forces access to four new bases, in addition to five existing bases included under the expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The decision was opposed vehemently by several provinces and municipalities in the target areas. But these concerns were quickly suppressed as “unnecessary.” Even the Congress proved oddly numb about the seismic foreign policy shift, despite its huge economic and geopolitical implications.

And yet, in September, Adm. Aquilino returned to the Philippines to discuss “opportunities for increased multilateral cooperation, maritime security initiatives, and the upcoming exercise Balikatan.” The U.S. had added 63 projects for the EDCA sites on top of the previously-approved 32. These projects included multipurpose storage facilities, road networks and fuel storage, “among others.” Although the U.S. officially has only “rotational access” to the Philippines bases, it had allocated over $109 million towards infrastructure improvements at some seven EDCA locations.

Presumably, the Philippines is to serve as a logistical platform, to tie China in the South China Sea (SCS) before a potential Taiwan crisis. But more is needed. Or as Radio Free Asia reported: “The US is seeking access to more bases in the Philippines on top of nine sites already included under an expanded pact.”

Just weeks later, in a Senate hearing, Senator Robinhood Padilla addressed the presence of a US Navy Poseidon aircraft circling overhead during a resupply mission, suggesting that the US naval presence unnecessarily caused an escalation between China and the Philippines. Instead of welcoming Padilla’s comments as an opening for a democratic debate on the pros and cons of the foreign policy U-turn, the questions were hush-hushed away.

Eclipse of Southeast Asian economic engines

Until recently, Japan and the Philippines were reluctant to host new American capabilities, to avoid becoming an immediate target of the Chinese military in a crisis. As economic challenges are amounting in both countries, things are changing.

But us trilateral mobilization the only option?

While affirming the strong US-Philippines bilateral alliance in the 2022 CSIS event, senator Imee Marcos affirmed the broad US-Philippines address, but it was not exclusive with “engagement with China, including joint development, confidence-building measures, and a code of conduct in the South China Sea.” In a multipolar world, there is room for multiple power centers.

Against widespread criticism and skepticism in the ASEAN, the proponents of the trilateral militarization portray it as a pillar of “peace and stability” in the region. They live in a parallel universe. As several ASEAN leaders have warned, trilateral mobilization has potential to split Southeast Asia and bury the Asian Century. 

Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see

 A version of the commentary was published by China-US Focus on April 12, 2024.