From January 29-31, Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin paid a three-day visit to Japan where he led talks with his counterpart Gen. Nakatani to boost the defense relationship between the two countries.
Japan and the Philippines have a long relationship that extends beyond contemporary concerns about China. As I have noted previously, it was in Manila that former Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda delivered his famous “Fukuda Doctrine” speech in 1977, which heralded Tokyo’s new approach to Southeast Asia after the relationship had been marred by Japanese occupation during WWII. But while economics has long been a major part of the relationship, under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and amid growing anxiety about Chinese actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, both countries have been strengthening their defense ties under a strategic partnership inked in 2011.
The recent visit was another sign that the relationship between the two sides could grow closer still in this dimension. The list of proposed measures in their joint press statement, released on January 30 and seen by The Diplomat, is ambitious. Yes, the two sides did brief each other on maritime security issues, which have brought them ever closer over the past few years. But they also signed a memorandum of understanding outlining specific steps to enhance defense cooperation and exchanges between their two defense ministries.
Some of the measures agreed upon include regular dialogues at the ministerial and vice-ministerial level as well as talks and visits by the various armed services, which will help further collaboration. But there was also mention of specific cooperative endeavors both bilaterally and with other partners. Japan would commence a capacity building project for the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, while both sides would also explore cooperation in defense equipment and technology. These are initiatives that could go beyond the transfer of ten patrol boats to the Philippines originally announced in 2013, particularly with reports that Manila had handed over a ‘military wish list’ of sorts to Tokyo to assist with its ongoing defense modernization.
More broadly, in a sign of the two countries working in other fora with like-minded partners, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force will work with the Philippine navy as fellow members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium to contribute to the development and implementation of the Code for Unplanned Sea Encounters at Sea. There is also indication of both countries being integrated as part of existing partnerships, with mention of working to make its air force part of the “Cope North Guam” exercises – a Japan-U.S.-Australia joint exercise. This would build conceptually on Japan’s previous participation — to varying degrees — in U.S.-Philippine bilateral exercises last year.
Of course, the jury is still out on how much of this will materialize in the coming months. But there is little doubt that both sides are keen on “elevating” their defense relationship, as the joint statement put it, with potentially significant changes for regional security.