Aquino backs Japan's bid to widen defence role

PHILIPPINE President Benigno Aquino has expressed support for Japan's bid to reinterpret its Constitution to allow it to aid other nations in self-defence - including the Philippines - amid China's increasingly aggressive posture in regional waters.

Japan and the Philippines have tense relations with China over their respective territorial disputes with Beijing.

Mr Aquino told a joint press conference, following talks here yesterday with Premier Shinzo Abe, he welcomed the Japanese leader's bid to give his nation the right to collective self-defence.

The Philippine leader's one-day working visit was aimed at deepening bilateral security ties with Japan in the face of the rising military threat from China.

"We believe that nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others and is allowed wherewithal to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defence," said Mr Aquino.

Mr Abe is seeking to reinterpret his country's Constitution to reverse a decades-old policy and allow Japan's military to help friendly nations in a contingency.

The Philippines and China are at loggerheads over their rival claims to the Spratly Islands - also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia - in the South China Sea. China has also staked out a huge portion of the South China Sea, with parts of it covering other Philippine- claimed territories.

In the East China Sea, Japan is locked in a dispute with China over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu.

Mr Aquino is believed to have updated Mr Abe on Manila's case with an international tribunal against China's sweeping claims.

Officials said the two agreed on the importance of solving disputes through peaceful means and according to the rule of law. This has been repeatedly championed by Mr Abe in meetings with Asean leaders, in a bid to check China's increasing aggressiveness in asserting its claims.

In the past few months, regional tensions have risen further as China has speeded up reclamation of land in the Spratlys for an airstrip and radar facilities, to boost its military presence in the area. The reclamation is said to be the first step in China's aim to build a line of offshore defence to protect the Chinese mainland.

China is also upgrading its naval capabilities to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims, analysts have said.

Mr Aquino told Mr Abe during their meeting, their fourth in the past 12 months, that Manila welcomed the "opportunity to revitalise the strategic partnership" between their two countries.

Officials said Mr Abe briefed Mr Aquino about his new growth strategy, including plans by Japan to accept more foreign domestic helpers.

Japan also proposes to recruit more foreign workers by expanding its existing foreign trainee programme that allows foreigners to work in Japan in designated industries for a limited period.

The two leaders also discussed humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well as peace and development in the troubled Philippine island Mindanao, in which Japan is interested in enhancing trade and investment.

The President, who arrived here yesterday morning, later left for the western city of Hiroshima to speak at the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao Conference.

wengkin@sph.com.sg