SPEAKING FREELY Japan and Philippines align strategic interests
By Julius Cesar I Trajano
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SINGAPORE - Japan and the Philippines recently launched joint initiatives in security cooperation to reinvigorate their strategic partnership. Seven decades after Japan's invasion of the Philippine archipelago, Tokyo announced the donation of 10 new patrol ships valued at US$11 million each to the Philippine Coast Guard. The
unprecedented gesture reflected a renewed vibrancy in bilateral ties.
Japanese and Filipino diplomats and maritime officials met in Manila on February 22 to discuss maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, maritime security and safety, anti-piracy measures, fisheries and marine scientific research.
The bilateral engagement has been driven by two key strategic factors: 1) a common perception that China represents an existential threat, and 2) domestic political and economic considerations by the Philippine government.
With the return of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power, Japan is shadowing the United States with its own ''pivot'' to Southeast Asia. Manila, which is currently bolstering partnerships with various regional allies to strengthen its defense capabilities, is poised to play a vital role in Tokyo's nascent strategic realignment.
The joint initiatives are in clear response to Beijing's rising assertiveness in the East and South China seas, where Japan and the Philippines have respective intensifying territorial disputes with China.
China has challenged Japanese sovereignty over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which have emerged as a new regional security hot spot. Japan has claimed that a Chinese naval frigate locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese ship in the area of the disputed islands in January.
After a weeks-long stand-off between Chinese and Philippine maritime vessels last year that threatened to escalate into an armed exchange, Beijing now has de facto control over the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, a maritime fixture in the South China Sea believed to be rich in oil and gas.
During talks in Manila last January, the foreign ministers of Japan and the Philippines expressed ''mutual concern'' over China's growing assertiveness in staking its territorial claims in contested maritime areas.
The Philippine government went as far as to say it would staunchly back a rearmed Japan shorn of its pacifist constitution to counter-balance China in the Asia-Pacific. Philippine President Benigno Aquino stated that a stronger Japan could challenge the ''threatening'' presence of China in the region.
The transfer of new patrol boats, expected to be delivered within 18 months, will bolster the Philippines' laggard naval capabilities. Though the vessels will not tilt the naval balance of power in the South China Sea, they will boost the Philippines' maritime domain awareness and advance Japan's strategic aims in Southeast Asia.
A better-equipped Philippine Coast Guard will no doubt help Japan to monitor China's maritime activities in the South China Sea. For Japan, rising territorial tensions in the South China Sea serve as a test case for how China might react in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.
Moreover, Japan likely sees that increasing the number of available vessels that the Philippines can deploy to secure its territorial claims, China's maritime agencies' attention and resources will be divided between the East and South China seas.
Enhancing the capabilities of the Philippines' ill-equipped maritime agencies will also enable them to better protect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, including the unhindered flow of Japanese maritime traffic.
The burgeoning Japan-Philippines partnership may also be assessed within the broader context of Manila's effort to internationalize the South China Sea disputes. The Philippines has consistently sought wider support from its allies, including its treaty ally the United States, in dealing with China's assertiveness.
Manila recently brought its territorial disputes with Beijing to an Arbitration Tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China, which has insisted it will only negotiate its expansive claims on a bilateral basis, strongly condemned the move.
While China's perceived threat is paramount to the Philippines' strategic calculus, domestic considerations are likewise shaping the contours of Japan-Philippines strategic ties. Japan, the world's third largest economy, is viewed by President Benigno Aquino's administration as a major driver of future economic growth.
Although China is the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (ASEAN) biggest trading partner, Japan is still the Philippines' top trade partner with total trade exceeding $13 billion last year. Japan also remains the Philippines' top export market and primary source of investment, comprising around 35% of total foreign direct investment ($1.5 billion) in 2012.
Unlike his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino has appeared to be less receptive to Beijing's commercial incentives. Elected on an anti-corruption platform, Aquino has moved to cancel certain Chinese-funded projects initiated under Arroyo that were marred by irregularities.
While Manila is currently repaying a concessional Chinese loan for a now-scuttled railway project, Tokyo is generously extending official development assistance (ODA) to support Aquino's big-ticket infrastructure projects, including an extension of Manila's Metro Rail Transit system and airport construction.
Japan has also poured ODA into the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Aquino's government has brokered a hopeful new framework agreement for peace with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). While Aquino clearly views a final peace accord as key to his legacy, Japan has contributed significantly to the process through generous development projects.
The Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development, or J-BIRD, aim to enable the people of Mindanao ''to enjoy the dividends of peace'', according to the Japanese government. Tokyo has already implemented socio-economic infrastructure projects amounting to $136 million in targeted areas. Japan is a member of both the International Monitoring Team and International Contact Group that served as an observer during the peace talks.
The convergence of Japan's and the Philippines' threat perceptions of China will ultimately determine the depth of the two sides' strategic cooperation. At the same time, domestic concerns have also influenced Manila's receptiveness to Tokyo's soft power diplomacy and strategic overtures. For Manila, bilateral ties with Tokyo have moved from platitudes and rhetoric to genuinely empowering military assets and economic assistance.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Julius Cesar I Trajano is a Senior Analyst at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.