Philippines, Japan sign groundbreaking defense pact as ‘counterweight’ to China

Agreement provides a framework for security operations including joint military drills and maritime patrols.
By Jason Gutierrez for BenarNews
2024.07.08
Manila
Philippines, Japan sign groundbreaking defense pact as ‘counterweight’ to China Philippines’ Secretary of Defense Gilberto Teodoro (3rd L), Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo (2nd L), Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara (3rd R) and Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (2nd R) hold a 2+2 meeting at a hotel in Manila on July 8, 2024.
AFP

The Philippines and Japan signed a defense pact Monday that will allow troops to be deployed in each other’s country, a landmark agreement seen as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement, or RAA, was signed by Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa in Manila at a ceremony witnessed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

Japan’s foreign and defense ministers are in the city for “two-plus-two” meetings with their Philippine counterparts.

The RAA serves as a framework for security operations and training between the two nations, including joint military drills and maritime patrols in the parts of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing but within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

Japan has pursued similar agreements with a handful of countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, but this is a first in Asia. 

It also signifies the first time Japanese troops will be allowed to return to Philippine soil since the Imperial army’s occupation during World War II.

Speaking after the signing, Kamikawa hailed the pact as a great achievement that would help “maintain and strengthen a free and open international order based on the rule of law.”

Teodoro said the deal was a step forward for the region and would add another layer to bilateral and defense relations. It would also help create a “global architecture which will ensure sustainable peace and stability in our area,” he said.

Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations were strategically important for Japan, as they are situated at a key junction of its sea-lanes.

He added Japan was keen to deepen trilateral and quadrilateral ties, with the Philippines, United States and Australia.

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Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo (left) and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro (right) meet with their Japanese counterparts in Manila on July 8, 2024. (Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews)

The signing of the RAA comes amid escalating tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.

On June 17, Philippine officials said China Coast Guard personnel, armed with pikes and machetes, punctured Philippine boats and seized firearms during a resupply mission to an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal.

One Filipino sailor lost a finger in the clash, the third such encounter this year in which Philippine personnel have been hurt.

Earlier on Monday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo thanked Japan for standing by the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China.

He also praised Tokyo for supporting the rules-based international order, including a 2016 international arbitration ruling that found China had violated Manila’s sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.

“Our meeting today is an auspicious time for frank and candid discussions on issues of utmost importance to both our nations in an increasingly diverse dynamic geopolitical environment,” Manalo said during the two-plus-two meetings.

Chester Cabalza, president of Philippine-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation, said the defense deal was “groundbreaking” and would serve as a counterweight to China in the region. 

“The significance of the military pact enlivens the agility and deterrence of Manila with the quantum leap support of a strategic and technologically advanced neighbor like Japan,” Cabalza told RFA affiliate BenarNews.

Don McLain Gill, a political analyst at the international studies department of De La Salle University, said the agreement would act as an independent stabilizing force. At the same time, it would be compatible with U.S. efforts to form a network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. 

“Japan has played a significant role in crafting a more robust framework for Manila-Tokyo ties, and Japan has also demonstrated its steadfast commitment in being the Philippines’ major economic and defense partner,”  he said.

“In a scenario where the U.S. may dial down its support for Manila, our partnership with Japan is likely to remain steadfast and consistent.”

Manila has a similar deal with Washington, the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which sets the terms under which American military personnel can operate on Philippine soil. 

The U.S. now has access to nine military bases across the archipelago and has pledged U.S. $100 million for upgrades.

Jojo Riñoza and Gerard Carreon contributed to this report from Manila.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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