Japan’s natural security ally in Southeast Asia is the Philippines. That country, which is an archipelagic nation like Japan, has seen a continuous increase in security pressure from Beijing.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited the Philippines on November 3 and met with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The two leaders agreed on expanding their bilateral defense cooperation to address security challenges due to China’s growing military activities in the South and East China Seas.
The two reached an agreement on starting negotiations for a defense pact, a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) that would help facilitate the presence of visiting forces and further conduct military training activities collectively.
Kishida asserted that a defense agreement with the Philippines would allow the deployment of Japanese troops to the country, which would strengthen ties between the two nations and work on countering China’s aggressive behavior. There have been increased tensions in the East and South China Seas and both Tokyo and Manila are locked in territorial disputes with China.
In June, Japan had sent a coast-guard patrol ship, the Akitsushima, to the Philippines and participated in a trilateral exercise with the US and the Philippines. Long-standing treaty allies of the United States are Japan and the Philippines. Because of this, their armed forces have been exposed to and probably impacted by American military tactics for a long time, which facilitates cooperation among them.
Moreover, Japanese leaders believe that stronger security ties with the Philippines could bolster deterrence in the Western Pacific. Japan has been steadily expanding its security engagement with the Philippines as Tokyo is also trying to move away from its pacifist stance, which was explicitly evident in its revised National Security Strategy document that came out in December 2022.
Both Japan and the Philippines explored the idea of such an agreement in 2015. However, this has now taken an urgency due to China’s assertive behavior.
As part of its Official Security Assistance (OSA) program, Japan intends to donate coastal radar systems to the Philippine Navy, valued at about $4 million, to enhance its capabilities. With the announcement in April that the Philippines will be among the primary beneficiaries of the aid program, Japan has given Manila access to air surveillance radars, satellite communications equipment, and coast-guard vessels.
Moreover, with the launch of the OSA, Japan has broken with its long-standing policy of not using development aid for anything other than disaster relief in the military.
The Terms of Reference (TOR) pertaining to the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF’s) humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the Philippines were already signed by the two leaders in February. The two nations are currently preparing to expand their cooperation into the military sphere.
Relations between the two nations date back at least six decades. Japan is the largest supporter of infrastructure development in the Philippines, contributing funds to the construction of bridges, railroads, and the Manila subway, among other projects.
Concerns have been expressed regarding China’s objectives in the region and readiness to abide by international law and standards due to its military buildup and increasingly assertive maritime maneuvers. Beijing claims that because it has “indisputable sovereignty” over some South China Sea islands, its activities are legal.
Perhaps nowhere are these worries more felt than in the Philippines, where Chinese warships have been obstructing fishermen’s passage and Manila is unable properly to explore oil and gas deposits in a region that an international tribunal has determined to be part of its exclusive economic zone.
In the contested waters, tensions between China and the Philippines have recently increased. Chinese ships crashed into a Philippine Coast Guard ship and a supply boat in the South China Sea in October. Japan and the US both condemned the incidents and reaffirmed their commitment to support the Philippines in the event of an armed attack.
Japan denounced the incident and sided with the Philippines in preserving the maritime order, while Manila accused Beijing of purposefully colliding with its boats. It is evident that Manila’s and Tokyo’s decision to strengthen security ties was significantly influenced by their growing concerns about an increasingly assertive China.
The two nations are in the process of negotiating a Reciprocal Access Agreement, which may enable cooperative military exercises and other joint operations by their armed forces. The Philippines has similar agreements with both the United States and Australia, and Japan has separate agreements of a similar nature with the United Kingdom and Australia.
The Philippines is seen as essential to preserving regional security and stability because of its location relatively close to Taiwan and along important maritime trade routes. This is because there are worries in some circles that a crisis similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could arise in the region.
An RAA between Japan and the Philippines would facilitate joint exercises and give the JSDF more access to Philippine bases, possibly even enabling rotational deployments. Such an agreement would also greatly facilitate the JSDF’s deployment to the Philippines during emergencies such as natural disasters.
Furthermore, the agreement would enhance trilateral collaboration with US military forces. The United States was able significantly to strengthen its defense posture in the disputed South China Sea and close to Taiwan this year thanks to an agreement reached by Washington and Manila that allowed access to four more military installations in the Philippines.
The Marcos administration canceled several development projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and suspended a military exchange program with China because of the recent severe deterioration of Sino-Philippine relations.
Kishida’s visit to Manila also included a number of agreements in the tourism and infrastructure sectors, coinciding with the two nations’ strategic alignment on matters of defense and security. They not only share the same interests in the area of maritime security, but they also agree that resistance to Chinese coercion is necessary.
Japan aims to uphold the US-dominated “rules-based international order” and secure the “free and open Indo-Pacific” vision amid growing concerns over China.
It is unlikely that the Philippines is the only nation that would welcome increased security cooperation with Japan given China’s persistently assertive actions. Most notably, Vietnam has accepted Japan’s offers of patrol boats and participated in maritime drills with it. Meanwhile, it has been suggested that Japan may provide military support to Fiji and Malaysia in the future.
Though it has undoubtedly gotten off to a slow start, Japanese security engagement could soon pick up momentum.