Japan and Philippines agree to take defense ties to next level

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first Japanese leader to address a special joint session of the Philippine Congress, waves beside Philippines’ Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri and Philippines’ House Speaker Martin Romualdez at the House of Representatives in Quezon City, Philippines, on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS


Japan has taken another step to bolster its network of security partners by launching negotiations with the Philippines on a visiting forces agreement and making the Southeast Asian country the first recipient of its new military aid program.

“Under the increasingly severe and complex international situation, we are deepening cooperation in the area of security,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday during a joint news conference in Manila alongside Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The move by the two “semi-allies” comes amid growing concerns by both over China’s territorial ambitions.

Building on a February meeting in Tokyo, the two strategic partners confirmed that they will begin talks on what is known as a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) — a pact that provides the legal framework for greater bilateral security cooperation — while expanding trilateral ties with their common defense ally, the United States.

“We are cognizant of the benefits of having this arrangement both to our defense and military personnel and to maintaining peace and stability in our region,” Marcos said.

Tokyo has signed two similar agreements in recent years, one with Australia and another with Britain, both of which came into effect this year. The new deal would mark Japan’s first with a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Located relatively close to Taiwan and astride key maritime trade routes, the Philippines is considered crucial to maintaining regional security and stability amid concerns that a crisis akin to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could erupt in the region.

A RAA between Japan and the Philippines would allow the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) greater access to Philippine bases, potentially even rotational deployments, and facilitate joint exercises, said Kei Koga, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“If the RAA is concluded, it will become much easier for Japan and the Philippines to cooperate militarily and boost the deterrence effect against China,” Koga said, noting the deal would provide Manila with more strategic options to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Such a pact would also make it much easier for the SDF to be deployed to the Philippines in times of emergencies, including natural disasters.

At the same time, the deal would help strengthen trilateral cooperation with U.S. forces. Earlier this year, Washington and Manila reached a deal that granted access to four additional military sites in the Philippines, allowing the U.S. to substantially boost its defense posture in the disputed South China Sea and near Taiwan.

Kishida, who was on his first state visit to the Philippines as prime minister, also said Tokyo will provide coastal surveillance radars via a grant worth ¥600 million ($4 million), making Manila the first beneficiary of Tokyo’s recently launched Official Security Assistance (OSA).

The announcement came just a day after Tokyo said it had delivered the first air surveillance radar system that Manila bought from Japan under a 2020 contract.

The new OSA framework, first announced in last December’s revised National Security Strategy, aims to initially provide equipment, supplies and infrastructure development assistance to partner countries, mostly in the Asia-Pacific, in the form of grants, rather than loans.

The aim is to strengthen these nations’ security and deterrence capabilities to “reinforce the comprehensive defense architecture,” help deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan and in the South China Sea and create a more favorable balance of power. At the same time, strong bilateral ties with Japan would help prevent these countries from tilting too much toward China.

The launch of the OSA marks a break with Japan’s previous policy of avoiding the use of development aid for military purposes other than disaster relief. Bangladesh, Fiji, Vietnam and Malaysia, the latter of which Kishida was to visit Sunday, are also among those being considered for the program.

The prime minister also pledged to help improve Manila’s maritime law enforcement capabilities through port infrastructure development, technology cooperation — including the transfer of more defense equipment such as warning and control radars — and the provision of additional patrol vessels.

During his two-day trip, Kishida also became the first Japanese prime minister to address the Philippine Congress. In a speech Saturday, he referred to bilateral relations as “stronger than ever.”

At the same time, he warned that the rules-based international order is “under serious threat,” stressing the importance of multilayered cooperation among allies and like-minded countries, including the United States, to maintain this order.

“In the South China Sea, trilateral cooperation to protect the freedom of the seas is underway,” Kishida said.

Under its so-called nine-dash line, China claims some 90% of the strategic waterway, despite claims by several other countries. While Tokyo does not have a claim to the waterway, it is a crucial trade artery for Japan.

“Japan sees in the Philippines a state with very limited capacity but an increasingly strong will to stand up to Chinese bullying,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the U.S. National War College.

Since his election in May last year, Marcos has taken a more assertive stance on territorial disputes with Beijing. He has broken with his predecessor’s staunch pro-China policies, vowing not to lose “an inch” of territory in the strategically and economically important South China Sea and regularly spotlighting Beijing’s behavior in the waterway.

Of the more than 465 Philippine protests made against China since January 2020, some 26% have been filed under the Marcos, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.

This year alone has seen several incidents, including last month’s collision between a China Coast Guard vessel and a Philippine resupply ship near the Spratly Island chain.

These series of dangerous and aggressive actions are not only worsening Sino-Philippine ties but could also threaten to escalate into a larger crisis, including one that draws in the United States, Manila’s treaty ally.

Sino-Philippine ties have deteriorated so much recently that the Marcos government has suspended a military exchange program with China and canceled a series of development projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.

Kishida’s visit, which also included several deals in the areas of infrastructure and tourism, comes as the two countries find themselves strategically aligned on defense and security issues. Not only do they have overlapping interests in the maritime security domain, they also share the view that pushback is needed in response to Chinese coercion.

“For Japan, the South and East China Seas are a single littoral, so Tokyo cannot defend international law and uphold peace and security in Northeast Asia if China is free to trample it in Southeast Asia,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“That makes supporting the Philippines in its disputes with Beijing of direct importance.”

On the other hand, Manila benefits from having as wide a coalition as possible supporting its military modernization and providing diplomatic and economic support as it stands up to China, using a 2016 arbitration ruling by an international court as the legal basis for its pushback, he said.

Crucially, having Japan, as well as Australia, engaging in sophisticated joint training, capacity building and planning also helps dispel narratives at home and abroad that the Philippines is overly reliant or subservient to the U.S., Poling added.

This type of multipronged support is important, considering Manila’s very limited defense budget of around $5 billion, most of which is used to deal with ongoing Islamist insurgencies in Mindanao and Sulu, a nationwide communist insurgency and, increasingly, to push back against China’s maritime claims.

“Maritime platforms, whether naval or coast guard vessels, are very expensive,” said Abuza. “So the Philippines looks to multiple partners, including Japan, for support.”

Tokyo, he added, will likely supply more decommissioned coast guard vessels to Manila and perhaps even expand to decommissioned naval ships. Japan has already provided a dozen vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard.

The recently announced deals have been heavily criticized in China, with the state-run Global Times newspaper warning in an opinion piece that OSA implementation will only further escalate tensions as Japan “seeks various opportunities to break through” its self-imposed restrictions on exporting weapons.

“Japan’s actions do not adhere to the ‘positive pacifism’ it claims,” the editorial said. On the contrary, by providing defense equipment to Southeast Asian countries, especially those involved in the South China Sea issue, Japan is “creating a tense situation in the region, which is anti-peace.”

Vietnamese American Conservative Alliance (VACA)