Tensions are growing in East Asia, driven in large part by the continued rise of China and its bid for regional primacy. In particular, Beijing’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea – and its efforts to enforce those claims – have created concerns as to exactly what kind of power it wants to wield. China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines has been one of the most vehement, with the smaller country challenging Beijing’s sweeping territorial and maritime claims, popularly known as the nine-dashed line.
While Manila has brought its case before an Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is pursuing other avenues to defend its interests. The Philippines has initiated strategic partnerships with Japan and Australia that seek to elevate bilateral ties that prioritize security cooperation. These partnerships are comprehensive: economic, political, and socio-cultural. With the elevation of bilateral relations to a strategic level, Manila expects closer cooperation especially in military and maritime matters.
These initiatives indicate the willingness of the Philippines to expand its current bilateral and multilateral relations and deepen its ties with like-minded states, although date, only Japan has agreed to a partnership. The Philippines seeks to complement its multilateral relations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its mutual defense treaty with the U.S. with other robust bilateral cooperation to enhance its position in East Asia.
The Philippines-Japan strategic partnership originally began as an enhanced economic relationship. Having signed the Philippines-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, the two countries decided that fostering a strategic partnership should be among their shared policy objectives.
In 2011, the Strategic Partnership was formalized through a joint statement issued by President Benigno S. Aquino III and then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Their statement alluded to shared basic values such as freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law as the main bases for the enhanced level of relations. A common strategic interest in protecting the sea lines of communication of the two maritime countries was also identified as a foundation of the enhanced relationship.
Manila became the first official overseas destination of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida when he visited Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on January 9, 2013 to discuss shared regional concerns and bilateral activities. At their subsequent meeting in Tokyo, Del Rosario and Kishida agreed that Japan will provide the Philippine Coast Guard with several patrol boats. At $11 million per boat, the transfer will be funded by Japan’s official development assistance to the Philippines and will be completed in a span of 18 months. The boats are expected to help the Philippines patrol its vast coastline and improve maritime domain awareness.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera visited the Philippines at the end of June 2013 to confer with his Filipino counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin. The two officials vowed to work together closely to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the settlement of the territorial disputes. Japan also has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea over islets it calls Senkaku Islands (and which China calls the Diaoyu Islands). The Philippines and Japan also agreed to work together to help the United States maximize its rebalance to the Asia Pacific. In addition, Manila expressed a willingness to provide Japanese maritime vessels with access to some of its naval bases, alongside the United States.