Seven decades after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, history has taken an ironic turn as the two former enemy nations pivot their relations on a security alliance under the threat of Chinese expansionism in the East China Sea and the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
This alliance is anchored on the security architecture linking the United States, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam— all onetime enemies, not only in World War II but also up until the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
This tectonic shift in defense realignment in the Asia-Pacific region was underlined by the historic visit to the Philippines last week of Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
The pivotal position of the Philippines in this nascent realignment was highlighted by the fact that Manila was the first Southeast Asian capital Kishida visited in his four-nation Asia-Pacific swing following the election on Dec. 26 of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Kishida’s tour included Singapore, Brunei and Australia.
Like Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam bear the brunt of China’s pressure in asserting its claims on territories in the East China Sea and West Philippine Sea, claimed by partners in the emerging alliance. The disputes have caused tensions in the region that have raised fears these could ignite dangerous flash points, leading to war.
Kishida’s visit underscored the Philippines’ role as Japan’s strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region. In a message ahead of his arrival, Kishida cited the importance of Japan’s Asian neighbors, particularly the Philippines, in advancing the security between Japan and the United States to counter the rise of China as a military power in the region.
The Philippines and Japan have defense treaties with the United States that are the anchors of its security system in the Asia-Pacific. Kishida did not disguise the security accent of his tour and Japan’s concern over the rising tensions between Tokyo and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
“Currently the strategic environment in the region continues to change significantly,” Kishida said. “Japan, as a responsible democracy, will play a proactive role in the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. I believe that it is important to strengthen the Japan-US alliance and deepening collaboration with neighboring countries which are developing under freedom, democracy and market economy.”
The meetings between Kishida and Philippine officials went beyond platitudes and rhetoric. They agreed, among other things, to enhance the military hardware of the Philippines to resist aggressive actions by China in the strategic waterway where Beijing is locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Kishida “discussed the common challenges” that the two countries “face in terms of the apparent assertions of China,” as well as the “possibility of sharing their strategies in dealing with these issues.”
In concrete terms, Japan has agreed to provide the Philippines with 10 multirole response vessels to assist the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in better patrolling Philippine maritime territories. According to Del Rosario, the patrol boats are expected to arrive in the Philippines in 18 months.
The military procurement from Japan followed an increasing flow of weapons and armaments over the past two years from the United States, Italy and France to beef up the firepower of the PCG—the weakest maritime defense force among the countries with rival claims in the West Philippine Sea.
China’s maritime forces have been prowling at will, with impunity, in waters where the Philippines, for instance, claims ownership of islands as part of its exclusive economic zone under international law.
Kishida’s visit came as a shot in the arm for the Philippines, the country most bullied by China. In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper last month, Del Rosario said the Philippines would strongly support a rearmed Japan shorn of its pacifist constitution as a counterweight to the growing military assertiveness of China.
“We would welcome that very much,” Del Rosario said. “We are looking for balancing factors in the region, and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.”
The statement upset China, which has accused the United States, Japan and their allies in the emerging realignment of building a ring for the “encirclement” of China.
At the end of Kishida’s visit, President Aquino poured fuel on the fire of China’s concern with a statement that a stronger Japan would be a counterweight to the “threatening” presence of China in the West Philippines Sea.
At a joint press briefing with Del Rosario, Kishida called for stronger ties with the Philippines to “ensure regional peace,” amid tense territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“On the political and security front, we agreed on strengthening policy dialogue and enhancing maritime cooperation on other matters,” Kishida said.
This was music to the ears of Philippine officials. The President and Kishida also discussed “common challenges” that both the Philippines and Japan face with China’s growing assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea.
More important to Filipinos is that the Philippine-Japan entente has gone beyond tough words without teeth. The meetings with Kishida hit hard ground. They talked about Japanese help in improving the PCG’s capability—so Philippine naval ships can fire back and sink enemy ships.
“The acquisition of multipurpose vessels is undergoing serious consideration,” Del Rosario said.
This is the kind of language that China respects because these are words backed by military hardware.