Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos attend a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on February 9, 2023. Kimimasa MAYAMA / POOL / AFP

PH, Japan eye US security cooperation

PRESIDENT Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are eyeing a trilateral security cooperation with the United States as they agreed to strengthen military and defense ties between their nations.

This comes as the Philippines and Japan confront China’s growing assertiveness in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims about 80 percent of the strategic water based on what it calls “historic rights.”

In a joint statement issued by the Embassy of Japan, Marcos and Kishida agreed to materialize the security and defense cooperation through bilateral consultations, including the Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2+2”).

They welcomed the signing of the terms of reference concerning the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Activities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces in the Philippines, and agreed to continue to consider ways including additional frameworks to enhance and facilitate joint exercises and others between the two countries.

“The two leaders concurred to advance consideration to promote cooperation in defense equipment and technology as well as trilateral cooperation among Japan, the United States and the Philippines,” the joint statement read.

“The two leaders also shared the view to further advance cooperation in economic security, cybersecurity and among others,” it added.

US strategy vs China

A report by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) entitled “US-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas: Background and Issues for Congress” provided information and issues for the US Congress regarding the US-China strategic competition in the West Philippine Sea involving long-time treaty ally the Philippines.

The report, dated Feb. 8, 2023, came out as the US and the Philippine governments accelerated the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the designation of four new Agreed Locations in strategic areas of the country.

The CRS pointed out that the West Philippine Sea has emerged as an “arena of US-China strategic competition.”

It said in the report that China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea have heightened concerns among US policymakers that China is “gaining effective control in an area of strategic, political, and economic importance to America and its allies and partners.”

The report pointed out that although disputes in the West Philippine Sea involving China and its neighbors such as the Philippines “may appear at first glance to be disputes between faraway countries over a few rocks and reefs in the ocean that are seemingly little importance to the US,” the West Philippine Sea issue can engage the interests of Washington for a variety of strategic, political, and economic reasons.

The US forces would also be able to operate in the Western Pacific for various purposes, including maintaining regional stability, conducting engagement and partnership-building operations, responding to crises, and executing war plans.

“It would also prevent the emergence of China as a regional hegemon in its part of Eurasia,” the CRS said.

However, a reduced US ability to do one or more of these reasons “could encourage countries in the region, including the Philippines to reexamine their own defense programs and foreign policies, potentially leading to a further change in the region’s security architecture.”

“In light of some of the preceding points, Chinese bases in the West Philippine Sea, and more generally, Chinese domination over or control of its near-seas region could complicate the ability of the United States to fulfill its obligations under US defense treaties with the Philippines,” the report said.

The CRS noted that China is trying to use disputes in the West Philippine Sea to raise doubts among US allies and partners in the region about the dependability of the US as an ally or partner or to otherwise “drive a wedge” between America and its regional allies and partners including the Philippines, so as to weaken the US-led regional security architecture and thereby facilitate greater Chinese influence over the region.

Also mentioned in the report are the concerns that maritime territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea will lead to a crisis or conflict between China and a neighboring country such as the Philippines, and that the US could be drawn into such a crisis or conflict as a result of obligations Washington has under bilateral security treaties with Manila.

‘Serious concern’

Both Marcos and Kishida have expressed “serious concern” about the current situation in the East and South China Seas and called for peace and stability in the region.

The two leaders strongly opposed forcible and coercive actions “that may increase tensions” in the waters being shared by several “stakeholders.”

Marcos and Kishida did not mention any nation or stakeholder in particular. But Japan sided with the Philippines in its “long-standing objections to unlawful maritime claims, militarization, coercive activities and threat or use of force in the South China Sea,” which were mostly committed by China.

China, the Philippines, and other littoral states are locked in a dispute over the South China Sea, while Japan is involved in a territorial row with Beijing over Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

“The leaders underscored the importance of peace and stability in the region and the security of its seas,” the joint statement read.

“The leaders reaffirmed their common commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the East and South China Seas, and a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas within the framework of international law, in particular Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” it added.

Kishida also expressed Japan’s support for the 2016 arbitral ruling on the South China Sea, which affirmed the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea.

Both Marcos and Kishida asserted that the Award “is final and legally binding.”

The two leaders then called for the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea that should be “consistent with Unclos and does not prejudice the rights of all stakeholders in the South China Sea.”

A question of strategy

In the same CRS report, it said the issue for the US Congress is whether the strategy of the administration of President Joe Biden for competing strategically with China in the West Philippine Sea is appropriate and correctly resourced, and whether the US Congress should “approve, reject, or modify the strategy, the level of resources for implementing it, or both.”

“Decisions that Congress makes on these issues could substantially affect US strategic, political, and economic interests in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere,” the report said.

The CRS cited in particular the potential contribution that could be made by allies such as the Philippines for the US strategy to succeed in its strategic competition with China in the West Philippine Sea.

“Whether and how to compete strategically with China in the West Philippine Sea is a choice for US policymakers to make, based on an assessment of the potential benefits and costs of engaging in such a competition in the context of overall US policy toward China, toward the Indo-Pacific, and its foreign policy in general,” according to the CRS, which works primarily and directly for members of Congress and their committees and staff on a confidential, nonpartisan basis.

Boost PH-Japan defense

Meanwhile, both Marcos and Kishida resolved to increase the defense capabilities of their own countries, and further strengthen overall security cooperation by strategic

reciprocal port calls and aircraft visits, transfer of more defense equipment and technology, continuous cooperation on previously-transferred defense equipment and capacity building.

In concrete terms, the leaders affirmed “to strengthen efforts to complete transfer of air-surveillance radars systems, and for its related personnel training.”

Marcos referred to Japan’s useful defense equipment transfer program, and the potential for deepening collaboration, joint work, and interoperability.

The Filipino leader also welcomed Japan’s intention to establish a new cooperation framework for the benefit of armed forces and other related organizations of recipient countries for the purpose of deepening security cooperation.

“The leaders of two maritime states, sharing critical interest in keeping the waters of the Indo-Pacific safe and free, reaffirmed the importance of efforts to reinforce Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and maritime law enforcement based on international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), for the stability in the South China Sea and the Sulu–Celebes Seas, and their surrounding areas,” the joint statement read.

“The leaders affirmed the importance of regular bilateral engagements through the Maritime Dialogue, for the maritime policy coordination and the effective pursuit of projects and activities, whose 5th meeting is expected in the first quarter of 2023,” it added.

Support for Bangsamoro

Kishida also expressed Japan’s intention to continue strengthening its support toward the institution of an autonomous government in Bangsamoro in ways commensurate to the peace process, and to extend cooperation in the Sulu–Celebes Seas and their surrounding areas.

Marcos expressed his deep appreciation for Japan’s continued support to the Mindanao peace process, which has led to peace and contributed to the development of the region.

Both leaders also expressed that they looked forward to jointly announcing a new vision for the future Asean–Japan relations on the occasion of the Asean–Japan Commemorative Summit for the 50th Year of Asean-Japan Friendship and Cooperation in Tokyo in December.

Marcos also took their bilateral talk as an opportunity to invite the prime minister to visit the Philippines in an early time, which the Japanese leader accepted.

The President is in Japan for an official visit that aims to strengthen ties between Manila and Tokyo. He will be back in the country on Sunday, February 12.

VFA ‘a work in progress’

Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez said the proposed Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) or equivalent pact between the Philippines and Japan is “a work in progress.”

“I think that’s ongoing. That’s what they call ‘a work in progress.’ So there are always conversations along those lines. And lines of communication are very open, especially after the visit,” Romualdez said.

“We’re all in the same region, and we’re all actually experiencing the same issues and concerns, and the President always says he knows and he always works multilaterally, but that’s not without exception to having bilateral agreements, for instance, between the Philippines and Japan, which would somehow effect like a trilateral agreement,” he added.

“So when it comes to peace and stability, we all know that these are necessary security arrangements because this stability in the region promotes prosperity, and that’s the bedrock of any strong economy,” he said.

Regarding the possible reaction of other countries, such as China, to such an agreement between the Philippines and Japan, Romualdez said that Marcos’ foreign policy has always been clear: It is all about peace.


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