A Japanese nurse administers a Covid-19 vaccine in a file photo. Image: Pool/Agencies

MANILA – Intent on checking Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” and maritime expansionism in Southeast Asia, the Joe Biden administration is counting increasingly on Japan in a “networked power” strategy to contain China’s regional advances. 

In recent weeks, both the United States and Japan have stepped up their own vaccine diplomacy in the region, donating millions of Covid-19 doses to frontline states such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Both Southeast Asian countries have been grappling with a surge in infection rates as well as Chinese naval expansionism in recent months. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte profusely thanked Japan for its donations, which he said, “will surely go a long way in our quest for herd immunity.” Simultaneously, the US and Japan have also stepped up their joint military exercises with regional allies to uphold a “free and open order” amid China’s maritime and territorial assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. 

Not long after concluding massive wargames with the US and France, Japan kicked off its first “air-to-air” training with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), underscoring growing “spoke-to-spoke” defense cooperation among the US’ regional allies.

The Japanese embassy in Manila hailed the unprecedented drills as “a clear testament to the deep-rooted bonds of friendship between our two nations.”

Throughout the year, the Biden administration has struggled to deepen strategic ties with Southeast Asian countries amid disagreements over human rights issues, China and the dearth of Covid-19 aid to the region.

In stark contrast, Beijing has donated millions of Covid-19 vaccines to regional states while conducting high-level meetings with Southeast Asian diplomats. 

A health worker holds up a vial of China’s Sinovac vaccine during the first phase of vaccinations for health workers at a hospital in Manila on March 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Eager to win back regional states, Washington has promised to donate vast amounts of Covid-19 vaccines. Last week, Malaysia received one million doses of US-donated vaccines, with Vietnam (two million) and Indonesia (four million) expected to receive even larger amounts in coming weeks. 

Former Philippine military chief and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr said the Biden administration was set to donate more than three million Johnson & Johnson (Janssen Pharmaceuticals) vaccine doses to the country via the Covax global vaccine sharing facility.

“This is just the beginning of doses being shipped to Southeast Asia,” a top US official told the media, as the Biden administration aims to share as many as 80 million doses of American-made Covid-19 vaccines through the developing world. 

Recognizing the importance of having proactive public health diplomacy in the region, the US allies have also been pitching in. Earlier, the European Union donated large amounts of AstraZeneca vaccines to Southeast Asia through the Covax facility, pledging to increase its global donations to up to 100 million doses in the coming months. 

Despite its own relatively slow vaccination rate, Japan has also stepped up its own vaccine diplomacy in the region. Last week, Vietnam received 600,000 Covid-19 vaccines, the third batch of AstraZeneca vaccine donations from the Japanese government, bringing the total to two million doses. 

Over the past month, Vietnam received about one million doses on June 16 and an additional 400,000 doses on July 7 amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases in the country.

Eager to avoid undue dependence on Beijing, especially amid festering maritime and territorial disputes, Vietnam has been among few countries to have expressly shunned Chinese-made vaccines in favor of Western-made and Russian-made alternatives.

Japan has also stepped up its efforts in the neighboring Philippines, which under President Duterte has warmly welcomed Beijing’s aid and Chinese-made vaccines.

The Filipino president has repeatedly complained about the reliability of Western pharmaceutical companies and threatened to sever security ties with the US in the absence of large-scale Covid-19 vaccine donations. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) receiving a dose of China’s Sinopharm against the Covid-19 coronavirus from the Secretary of Health Francisco Duque (R) at Malacanang Palace in Manila, May 2021. Photo: Presidential Photo Division (PPD) / AFP

Japan has stepped up its public health assistance to the Philippines both to prevent Manila’s tilt into Beijing’s orbit of influence and to help revive the Philippines’ battered economy.

Last Thursday, more than one million Japanese-donated AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines arrived at the Villamor Airbase in Metro-Manila, with no less than Duterte personally overseeing the reception ceremony. 

In a speech, the Filipino president thanked Japan and said the new batch of vaccines “will surely go a long way in our quest for herd immunity.”

“Japan continues to be our strong partner in various development programs. Our cooperation in fighting the pandemic is truly an indication of the deep friendship between our two countries,” Duterte said, as Filipino officials have fretted over delays in the delivery of Chinese-made vaccines in recent months. 

Masahiro Nakata, economic minister of the Embassy of Japan, hailed the donations as “a clear testament to the deep-rooted bonds of friendship between our two nations.”

Throughout the pandemic, Japan has been a major source of public health assistance to the Philippines, providing emergency financial support as well as laboratory and medical equipment. 

Crucially, the event coincided with the first exercises between the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and the Philippine Air Force (PAF), focusing on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) at another major Filipino base, the Clark Air Base, just over 90 kilometers from Manila. 

In stark contrast to its long history of “checkbook diplomacy,” Japan has increasingly gone beyond just serving as a source of development aid and financial assistance to US allies and strategic countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Over the past few years, the Asian country has become more actively involved in enhancing the maritime security capabilities of frontlines states from the Philippines and Vietnam to Malaysia and Indonesia.

It has also stepped up defense cooperation and conducted war games with the Indo-Pacific powers of India, France, Britain, Australia, and, most recently, even Germany. 

In May, Japan hosted the first joint war games with the US and France in the Kirishima training ground and Camp Ainoura in the Kyushu region, which is close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands with China.

Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force has been conducting more and more drills with other armed forces. Photo: AFP / Yasushi Kanno / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The exercises included amphibious operations, which clearly had China’s territorial and maritime ambitions in the East China Sea in mind. 

Last month, Japan and the US kicked off major drills, dubbed “Orient Shield,” which focused on missile drills, island defense and enhancing interoperability in an event of contingencies in the Taiwan Straits, including a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

This week, Japan is set to hold the first joint naval drills with Britain in the Horn of Africa.   Enhanced defense cooperation with the Philippines, another key US ally on the frontline of China’s rising maritime ambitions, is integral to Japan’s newfound role in the Indo-Pacific. 

Marking the 65 anniversary of the establishment of formal bilateral relations between post-war Japan and the Republic of the Philippines, the two Asian countries concluded a four-day aerial exercise aimed at enhancing interoperability between the two US allies.  

The exercises, which focused on HADR operations, brought into focus Japan’s crucial role throughout various major crises in the Philippines.

During the 2014 Haiyan super-typhoon, which devasted large parts of central Philippines, the JASDF was directly involved in rescue and humanitarian assistance operations, deploying a total of 1,180 personnel and as many as 16 aircraft, including seven -130H cargo planes, and three large vessels. 

The historic exercises were particularly crucial in light of the recent crash of a Philippine air force C-130 aircraft in Jolo. The exact circumstances of the incident are still under investigation, but experts have emphasized the necessity for greater training and military modernization to reduce the risk of such incidents. 

JASDF unit commander Major Mizuno Masaki expressed his country’s sympathies with his Filipino counterparts, emphasizing the need for stronger defense cooperation. 

“We are deeply saddened by the plane crash in Sulu. We offer our sincerest condolences to all those lost due to the tragic crash,” Mizuno said, adding that JASDF was still very grateful for the opportunity to visit the Philippines and work with the PAF for the first Air-to-Air bilateral training on HADR.

“As a strategic partner and friend of the Philippines, we are very much satisfied that our bilateral training contributes greatly to further strengthen the cooperation between our two Air Forces,” the Japanese commander added.