At a summit meeting on June 4, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visiting Philippine president Benigno Aquino III outlined a plan of action to strengthen their strategic partnership in the coming years.
As I have noted previously, Japan and the Philippines have long had a close relationship (See: “Japan’s ASEAN Charm Offensive”). When former Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda wanted to herald Tokyo’s new approach to Southeast Asia which had been marred by Japanese occupation during WWII, he chose Manila to deliver his famous “Fukuda Doctrine” speech in 1977. While economics has long been a major part of the relationship, growing anxiety about Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas have led both countries to strengthen their defense ties under a strategic partnership first inked in 2011 (See: “Japan, Philippines Boost Defense Ties”).
Aquino’s four day visit to Tokyo clearly gave the strategic partnership a further boost. Both sides issued a joint declaration praising their ‘strengthened strategic partnership’ and issued an action plan to further it still. Advances on the security side of the relationship were focused on maritime security, which is no surprise considering common concerns about Chinese assertiveness at sea (See: “Japan, Philippines Hold First South China Sea Naval Exercises”). Japan pledged to enhance the capacity of the Philippine Coast Guard, and the signing of a contract during Aquino’s visit between the Philippine government and the Japan Marine United Corporation for the acquisition of patrol vessels was evidence of progress in this regard.
More broadly, both countries also vowed to strengthen their security cooperation by concluding an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology and expanding bilateral and multilateral trainings and exercises. The agreement on defense equipment is particularly notable since sources have suggested that P-3C patrol aircraft and other radar-related equipment could feature among potential export items in the future. This is also the second such pact that Tokyo has signed with a Southeast Asian state following one with Malaysia last month (See: “Japan and Malaysia’s New Strategic Partnership”).
In the economic realm, the emphasis was on infrastructure and technology. Japan is already a major economic player in the Philippines: Tokyo is Manila’s largest partner as well as largest source of official development assistance, and over a thousand Japanese firms currently operate in the Philippines by one estimate. But Aquino told an investment forum during his trip that he expected more companies to follow in their footsteps, saying that there was “no better time to set up shop in the country.”
One of the promising areas in this regard is infrastructure. The Philippines is in urgent need of infrastructure, and Japan has recently announced an ambitious plan to promote ‘quality infrastructure’ in the Asia-Pacific (See: Is This Japan’s New Challenge to China’s Infrastructure Bank?”). In that vein, the joint declaration emphasized cooperation on a road map for better transport infrastructure in Manila to make it easier to conduct business. One big-ticket project within that scheme is a railway project worth about 300 billion yen ($2.4 billion). The declaration also stressed the importance of youth exchanges such as the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS2015) as well as promoting tourism since this year is Visit Philippines Year.
Aquino’s visit and its outcomes only add to the impressive list of advances the Japan-Philippine strategic partnership has made over the past few years. There is every chance that this could carry on into 2016, particularly since next year is the 60th anniversary of the bilateral relationship. That being said, there are uncertainties that could pose challenges for Tokyo and Manila moving forward. It is still unclear how a range of factors — including the verdict on the Philippines’ case against China – will affect Manila’s position in the South China Sea and the shape of maritime security cooperation. And while the Philippine economy has maintained its impressive growth thus far, investors could be spooked either if it loses steam or if they encounter familiar frustrations in trying to finalize new deals.
And lest one forgets, Manila is also heading into an election season. Even if strong structural factors continue to pull Japan and the Philippines together in the future, Aquino’s successor following the 2016 elections may want to tweak the balance of Manila’s alignments with major powers. That may not always work in Tokyo’s favor, regardless of how strong the strategic partnership already is.