Tighter Security Ties between Japan, Philippines Highlights Strong Sense of Urgency over China Expansion

Pool photo via AP
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Friday.

MANILA — Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s move to deepen security cooperation with the Philippines highlights the government’s strong sense of urgency over China’s aggressive maritime expansion.

“We want to maintain and strengthen a free and open international order based on the rule of law and ensure a world where human dignity is protected,” Kishida said at a joint press conference with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday after their talks in which the two leaders agreed to enhance their bilateral security ties.

During the talks, Kishida and Marcos agreed to begin negotiations toward concluding the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which would make it easier for the Self-Defense Forces and the Philippine military to conduct joint exercises.

Japan has concluded the RAA with Britain and Australia and regards the two countries as quasi-allies.

“Japan’s relationship with the Philippines has been upgraded to a quasi-ally after the latesst meeting between the leaders of the two countriees,” said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

With Japan facing the East China Sea and the Philippines facing the South China Sea, both are confronted with the threat of China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force, resulting in the two countries becoming closer.

The Philippines and China have been disputing over territorial rights to the Spratly Islands, among other areas.

At the end of August, China released a new map of Asia depicting as if almost the entire South China Sea is its territory. In late October, a China Coast Guard vessel collided with a Philippine ship in the South China Sea near the Second Thomas Shoal, which is effectively controlled by China. The incident led to escalating tensions between the two countries.

Since taking office in June 2022, Marcos has shifted from his predecessor President Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory stance toward Beijing and has emphasized his relations with both Tokyo and Washington.

Duterte’s administration had once informed Washington of its intention to terminate the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, destabilizing the bilateral alliance. Under Marcos’ administration, Manila and Washington have agreed to increase the number of bases in the Philippines that can be used by the U.S. military, including in the north, which is close to Taiwan.

“By capitalizing on this opportunity to strengthen relations with the Philippines, Japan will be better prepared in the event of a Taiwan contingency,” a senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said.

In June, the first defense ministerial meeting between Japan, the United States, Australia and the Philippines took place. In August, naval vessels from the four countries conducted joint drills in the waters around the Philippines.

Japan also signed an accord on Friday to provide the Philippines with defense equipment for free under the Official Security Assistance program. The government’s decision to select the Philippines as the first country under the program is a sign that Tokyo values the Japan-Philippines relationship.

“To counter China’s growing hegemonic moves, it is necessary to expand the cooperative framework beyond the Japan-U.S. relationship,” said a senior Japanese government official.