Defense chiefs from the US, Australia, Japan and the Philippines pledge to deepen cooperation | News, sports, jobs

FILE – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Defense Budget, Fiscal Year 2025 on Capitol Hill, April 17, 2024, in Washington. Austin and his counterparts from Australia, Japan and the Philippines will gather in Hawaii on Thursday, May 2, 2024, for their second-ever meeting of defense secretaries. (AP Photo/John McDonnell, File)

HONOLULU (AP) — Defense chiefs from the U.S., Australia, Japan and the Philippines vowed to deepen their cooperation as they gathered Thursday in Hawaii for their second-ever joint meeting amid concerns about Chinese operations in the South China Sea.

The meeting came after the four countries held their first joint naval exercises last month in the South China Sea, a key shipping lane where Beijing has long-simmering territorial disputes with a number of Southeast Asian countries and has caused alarm with its recent assertiveness in the waters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters at a news conference after their discussion that the exercises strengthened the nations’ ability to work together, built ties between their armed forces and underscored their shared commitment to international law of waterways.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles said defense chiefs were discussing increasing the pace of their defense exercises.

“Today, the meetings we held represent a very important message to the region and to the world about four democracies committed to the global rules-based order.” Marles said at the joint press conference with his colleagues.

Austin hosted the defense chiefs at the US military’s regional headquarters, US Indo-Pacific Command, at Camp HM Smith in the hills above Pearl Harbor. Earlier in the day, Austin held separate bilateral meetings with Australia and Japan, followed by a trilateral meeting with Australia and Japan.

Defense chiefs from the four countries held their first meeting in Singapore last year.

The US has decades-old defense treaties with all three countries.

The US has no claims to the South China Sea but has deployed naval vessels and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation, questioning China’s claims to virtually the entire waterway. The US says freedom of navigation and overflight in its waters is in America’s national interest.

In addition to China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims on the resource-rich sea. Beijing has refused to recognize a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its sweeping claims on historical grounds.

Skirmishes have been flaring up since last year, especially between Beijing and Manila. Earlier this week, Chinese Coast Guard vessels fired water cannons at two Philippine patrol vessels off the coast of Scarborough Shoal, damaging both.

The repeated clashes on the high seas have raised fears of a wider conflict that could put China and the United States on a collision course. The US has repeatedly warned that it is obliged to defend the Philippines – its oldest treaty ally in Asia – if Philippine forces come under armed ship or aircraft attack, including in the South China Sea.

President Joe Biden’s administration has said it aims to build what it calls a “a “railing” of alliances in the Indo-Pacific, even as the US grapples with the war between Israel and Hamas and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Beijing says the strengthening of US alliances in Asia is aimed at containing China and threatens regional stability.