Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to visit India and the Philippines in the weeks immediately after he travels to Washington DC to meet US President Joe Biden , a move widely seen as an attempt to stiffen those nations’ resolve to resist growing Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. Suga is expected to hold talks with Biden on April 16 and will be the first foreign leader to meet the new US president at the White House. Japanese government sources have indicated Suga will subsequently go to Manila to meet President Rodrigo Duterte and then on to New Delhi for discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi , although exact dates have yet to be determined because of the coronavirus situation. Japan to use F-35B fighter jets to defend East China Sea islands from 2024 India is part of the Quad, an alliance of the United States, Australia and Japan that is widely seen as a counterweight to China’s growing clout. India and Japan have also built close defence ties over the years, signing an agreement last September that would provide their militaries access to each other’s bases for supplies and services. “These are two of Japan’s most important partners in the region, with India part of the Quad security alliance and the Philippines our closest ally in Southeast Asia,” said Yuko Ito, a professor of international relations who specialises in Japan-Philippines relations at the Asia University of Japan in Tokyo. “It’s clear that Suga will want to strengthen Japan’s lines of communication and bonds with these two governments in order to help to contain the rise of China in the region,” she said. India has been embroiled in a months-long border dispute with China, sparked by a deadly clash in Ladakh in May last year. Even as a military disengagement process on both sides began in February, New Delhi has been seeking to deepen ties with its Quad partners. Will the Whitsun Reef dispute come between Beijing and Manila? India and the Philippines have long been recipients of Japanese economic assistance, and Ito said she believed Suga may well use his visits to announce additional aid packages, including help with coronavirus vaccines . The Philippines, at present, is heavily dependent on China for vaccine supplies, which leaves Manila open to pressure from Beijing. Duterte has shown himself to be open to working with the Chinese government, although relations have been strained in recent weeks over an estimated 220 Chinese fishing boats that have moored off Whitsun Reef , which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea , but which Beijing claims as part of its Nansha Islands and refers to as Niu’e Jiao. The dispute has put Manila in a difficult position, Ito said, pointing out that a recent report by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies showed that while 80 per cent of Philippine government officials and academics see China as a threat to national security, more than half simultaneously believe the nation has no choice but to have a good relationship with Beijing. Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said the timing of Suga’s visit to the Philippines – immediately after returning from Washington – was significant. “Suga will effectively be conveying a message to Manila that it will defend the Philippines and its claims to islands in the South China Sea and to India that it is a close and important ally and partner in the region,” he said. “The message will also be that the US is back and is once again committed to the region and that it values the friendships it has with both countries.” And while Japan will emphasise it is working with “like-minded” nations in the region, Nagy said that some of the nations it has recently been courting – including the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar – do not have spotless human rights records, so Tokyo will need to trade criticism of rights infringements to build the coalition that it hopes will give it a better chance of standing up to Beijing’s aggressive actions in disputed territories. China’s actions at Whitsun Reef should also be considered a warning to Japan, Nagy said, as Beijing could easily dispatch 200 or more fishing boats to waters close to the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Beijing refers to as the Diaoyu Islands and claims sovereignty over. The uninhabited islands are administered by Japan, where they are known as the Senkaku Islands. Last month, Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines, Koshikawa Kazuhiko, commented on the ships massing near Whitsun Reef that Manila has described as likely being manned by maritime militia. He said Japan opposed “any action that heightens tensions” in the South China Sea, and supported international efforts to keep the waters peaceful and open. The Chinese embassy in the Philippines hit back on Twitter, pointing out that within the region, tensions were rising “because some external countries are bent on playing fusty geopolitical games”.