A flotilla of three Japanese ships arrived in the Philippines on Sunday on a goodwill visit – the first such visit to include a Japanese submarine in 15 years – amid China’s ongoing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The training submarine Oyashio, accompanied by destroyers Ariake and Setogiri, made a port call at Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval base. Subic Bay lies just 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a feature that China seized from the Philippines back in 2012. This port call marked the first visit of a Japanese submarine to the Philippines since 2001.
Some 500 Japanese personnel and their Filipino counterparts are carrying out a series of confidence-building activities, shipboard tours, and goodwill games. Captain Hiroaki Yoshino of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) told reporters that the visit was about strengthening bilateral security cooperation and had nothing to do with tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
“We are here to train…we are not sending any message to any country,” he said.
As I noted in a previous piece, the move is just the latest sign in growing defense ties between Tokyo and Manila, one of the more forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea disputes (See: “Japanese Submarine to Visit the Philippines Amid South China Sea Tensions”). A verdict on the Philippines’ ongoing Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) case against China on the South China Sea is expected in May or June.
Japan and the Philippines held their first naval drills last year (See: “Japan, Philippines Hold First South China Sea Naval Exercises”). Plans are also in the works for potential transfers of defense equipment and technology – with the two countries inking a key pact in late February – and, further out, even potential Japanese access to Philippine bases through a visiting forces agreement.
Further progress in defense ties is expected when Japan’s defense minister, Gen Nakatani, visits Manila later this year (See: “Japan’s Defense Minister to Visit Philippines to Boost Security Ties”).
The goodwill visit by the three Japanese vessels also comes on the eve of annual Balikatan exercises between the United States and the Philippines. The drills, which will take place over 11 days, are expected to include a simulation of retaking of an island seized by an unspecified country in the South China Sea.
The three Japanese vessels will be in Subic Bay until Wednesday. The two destroyers are then scheduled to continue on to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for a similar visit.