Japan and Philippines deepen defence ties in response to China threat

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Japan and the Philippines have signed a landmark defence agreement to deepen military co-operation and enhance their regional deterrence against China.

The reciprocal access agreement allows their armed forces to train and conduct exercises in each other’s countries at a time of rising concern about China’s activity around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

It follows warnings from senior Philippine officials that escalating tensions with Beijing over the Second Thomas Shoal, a disputed reef, could trigger a war. The two-way agreement signed on Monday comes after the US hosted a historic trilateral summit with Japan and the Philippines, its two closest Asian allies, in April.

Gilberto Teodoro, the Philippines’ defence secretary, said the pact would “add to the multilateral efforts that both our governments are doing to make sure that our region respects the rule of international law”.

Relations between Manila and Tokyo have strengthened significantly under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The Philippines and other south-east Asia nations are situated in a very strategically important region, placed in a key junction of Japan’s sea lanes. Advancing defence co-operation and exchanges with the Philippines is important for Japan,” said Minoru Kihara, Japan’s defence minister, in Manila following the signing of the agreement.

In April, Jose Manuel Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the US, claimed that Tokyo and Manila had also discussed deploying Japanese forces in the Philippines on a rotational basis, but Japanese government officials have denied that such talks have taken place.

“There is still a high hurdle in terms of direct co-operation between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Philippines military,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, professor at Tokai University, citing restraints imposed by the country’s pacifist postwar constitution. “But it’s still major progress that the two countries can conduct joint exercises.”

The agreement is part of efforts by US allies in the region to build a web of mutual security co-operation that does not have the US at its centre. Japan has previously signed a similar pact with Australia and the UK.

The Philippines has actively pursued such deals because the Marcos administration has refocused its security policy on defending the country’s sovereignty, a shift from a previous priority on resolving a domestic insurgency.

China’s moves to assert its claim in the South China Sea have given more urgency to Manila’s push for more institutionalised defence ties, in particular more collaboration with friendly navies and coast guard forces.

Rommel Jude Ong, a professor at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila and former vice-commander of the Philippine navy, said the RAA with Japan would complement the pacts underpinning his country’s alliance with the US, including a mutual defence treaty.

“From a practical standpoint, it will mitigate whatever shortfall or shortcomings of our US ally, for example distraction in Ukraine and the Middle East,” Ong said. “Hopefully it takes us one step closer to a more robust trilateral security regime.”

Beijing has used its superior coast guard in combination with maritime militia ships to disrupt the Philippines armed forces’ missions to resupply their outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Since Manila’s relationship with Beijing soured in late 2022, Manila has signed security agreements with the EU, India and the UK. The country has a defence co-operation agreement with Australia and is in talks over similar pacts with Canada, France and New Zealand.

Asked about the Japan-Philippines pact, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said such accords “should not target or harm the interests of third parties, and should not undermine or damage regional peace and stability”.

Additional reporting by Wenjie Ding in Beijing

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