Japan to Provide Defense Equipment to Philippines; Patrol Boats, Radars, Drones Have Deterrence Against China in Mind

Reuters file photo
A Philippine flag flutters in March 2014 from a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and became a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to confirm the provision of defense-related equipment to the Philippines during a summit with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday in Manila, government sources said.

The government plans to provide the Philippines with small patrol vessels, radars and drones under Japan’s new official security assistance (OSA) framework.

In the National Security Strategy revised last December, it mentioned this new cooperation framework “will provide equipment and supplies as well as assistance for the development of infrastructures to like-minded countries.”

The aim is to strengthen security ties with the Philippines in light of China’s aggressive maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas, according to the sources. If the provision goes ahead, it will be first instance of OSA being implemented.

Unlike official development assistance, OSA allows direct support for the armed forces of like-minded countries with shared objectives. For the current fiscal year ending March 2024, the government has selected three other OSA recipient countries besides the Philippines: Bangladesh, Fiji and Malaysia.

The Philippines’ territorial disputes with China have been deepening in the South China Sea. On Oct. 22, its supply ships collided with China Coast Guard ships near Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines effectively controls.

During Kishida’s visit to Manila, Japan and the Philippines are also expected to agree to enter into negotiations to conclude a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) to facilitate joint training by the Self-Defense Forces and the Philippine military.

“We will confirm cooperation to maintain and strengthen a free and open international order based on the rule of law,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference on Tuesday when he announced Kishida’s visit to the Philippines and Malaysia from Friday through Sunday.

He said the Philippines is a “strategic partner that shares fundamental values and principles,” and expressed Japan’s eagerness to strengthen the relationship.

The Philippines is located at a strategic point in the South China Sea and is particularly threatened by China’s unilateral changes to the status quo through the reclamation of reefs and the construction of military bases.

To the country’s north is Taiwan, where China is increasing its military pressure. As such, the Philippines is becoming increasingly important for Japan and the United States in their efforts to strengthen deterrence against China.

AP file photo
A China Coast Guard ship, left, with a Chinese militia vessel, right, blocks a Philippine Coast Guard ship as it tries to head toward Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on Oct. 4.

Tokyo’s choice of Manila as the first recipient of OSA is seen as a “good opportunity to support the Philippines and to clearly demonstrate domestically and internationally Japan’s willingness to keep pace with the country through security cooperation,” according to a Foreign Ministry official.

The RAA is also part of Japan’s efforts in this regard. The agreement is designed to simplify immigration procedures and ways to bring in arms and ammunition for the Self-Defense Forces and the Philippine military when they stay in each other’s countries. The two countries agreed to start considering the matter at the first 2-plus-2 foreign and defense ministers meeting held in April 2022.

Japan has concluded RAAs with Australia and the United Kingdom. The Philippines will be the third country to enter into formal RAA discussions.

The Marcos administration has been trying to improve relations with the United States since its inauguration in June 2022, reversing the previous administration’s conciliatory approach to China. For Tokyo and Manila, the hope is that the conclusion of the RAA will lead to an expansion of joint training, including with Washington.