President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. photo from MPC pool

PH, Japan boost defense relations

TOKYO: President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida were expected to sign key agreements to boost their defense ties Thursday as Asia sees tensions around China’s growing influence.

A defense arrangement that’s one of the most crucial deals to be signed when Marcos and Kishida meet would allow Japanese troops to join more training exercises and respond to natural disasters in the Philippines. It could lead to similar agreements with other Southeast Asian nations.

Marcos’ trip comes a week after Manila announced a deal giving US troops access to another four bases in the country, and with Japan and the Philippines already in talks on a key defense pact.

The so-called Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) would allow the countries to deploy troops on each others’ territory for training and other operations.

Japan, which invaded and occupied the Philippines during World War 2, has recently inked similar pacts with Britain and Australia.

Marcos and Kishida are not expected to complete negotiations on the RAA deal immediately, but they will likely agree to measures aimed at speeding up military deployments for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The two leaders are taking an incremental approach towards the RAA, probably to avoid provoking Beijing, Renato de Castro, distinguished professor in the International Studies Department at De La Salle University in Manila, told Agence France-Presse.

“Both countries are still very much aware that they have touched a sensitive nerve in China [by] creating the possibility of an Asian encirclement of China,” de Castro said.

In Beijing’s view, “this might [be] the beginning of an Asian NATO. Because you really have Asian countries strengthening and enhancing their security partnerships.”

“When you think about the stability in the region and sea lanes and deterrence to China’s maritime assertiveness, deepening cooperation with the Philippines is crucial for the security of Japan and the United States,” said Heigo Sato, a Takushoku University professor and expert on defense and security. “Having access to bases in the Philippines would expand strategic options for the Japan-US alliance in case of a Taiwan emergency.”

Before departing on Wednesday, Marcos called his trip to Japan an “essential” part of a drive to strengthen partnerships “with major countries in the region amid a challenging global environment.”

He said he was “actively seeking” collaborations with Tokyo in areas including “agriculture, renewable energy, digital transformation, infrastructure, defense and security.”

He and Kishida are expected to sign seven agreements covering those areas.

Worried about Beijing’s growing assertiveness on Taiwan and bases in the disputed South China Sea, Manila has been repairing ties with Washington that were fractured in recent years.

Given its proximity to Taiwan and its surrounding waters, cooperation from the Philippines would be key in the event of a conflict with China.

Japan last year announced a major defense overhaul, pledging to double defense spending to the NATO standard of two percent of GDP by 2027 and designating China the “greatest strategic challenge ever” to its security.

Japan is the Philippines’ biggest diplomatic source of active development assistance, according to Manila, and its second-largest trading partner.

It is also the only country to have a bilateral free trade agreement with the Philippines.

Kishida is expected to affirm several loan agreements and extensions for Philippine infrastructure projects, including a $3 billion exchange of notes to finance major commuter rail projects.

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