Philippines eyes military deal with Japan amid South China Sea tensions

A file photo taken on May 14, 2019, shows a Philippines coast guard ship sailing past a Chinese coast guard ship. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines is open to an agreement to let Japanese troops conduct exercises in the country, as tensions continue to flare up in the South China Sea.  

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) would be in line with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s desire to foster stronger ties with Japan, which has been ramping up its relations with South-east Asian nations amid China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea. 

Currently, the Japanese military is constrained to being an observer during military exercises in the Philippines. Japanese troops are also allowed to conduct humanitarian and disaster response operations.

“We share common interests with Japan, particularly our interest in the West Philippine Sea, and of course, the maritime borders that we share with Japan. Our goal really is to strengthen the defence cooperation with Japan,” Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr, the Department of National Defence officer-in-charge, told reporters on Monday.

Asked if the VFA would help the Philippines defend its territory amid disputes with China in the South China Sea, Mr Faustino said the proposed deal is not meant to target any specific country.

“The agreements that we conduct with other countries, be it Japan, Australia, South Korea, the US, these are not directed towards another country... These are like-minded countries, and we’d like to maintain that cooperation.”

If the VFA materialises, Japan would be only the third country to ink such a military agreement with the Philippines, after the United States and Australia. 

In April, the foreign and defence ministers of the Philippines and Japan held their first “two-plus-two” meeting, vowing closer military cooperation.

Talks over a VFA with Japan started in 2015 under the government of the late president Benigno Aquino III. But his successor Rodrigo Duterte did not follow through. Mr Duterte instead prioritised warmer relations with China and pivoted away from the US, a military ally of both the Philippines and Japan.

Tensions remain high as China insists on its expansive claims over the South China Sea. This is being challenged by the other claimants – the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. 

In 2016, Manila had secured a victory at an international tribunal, which ruled that China’s claim of historic rights to the South China Sea was invalid. It also ruled that the West Philippine Sea belongs to Manila, not Beijing. Major powers such as the US and Japan have recognised the ruling but not China.

In November 2021, three Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannon on two Philippine supply boats passing through the waters around the Spratly Islands. The islands lie within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, though China disputes this.

Beijing has continued to build artificial islands in the disputed area. Photos released by Getty Images in October showed military equipment and structures on these man-made islands in the Spratlys, which experts believe would be used for intelligence and surveillance operations.

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