The Philippines marked an unusual historical milestone this week, when fighter jets from Japan landed in the country for the first time since Japan’s occupation of the Philippine islands during World War II.
On Tuesday, two F-15 fighters skidded down the runway at Clark Air Base, the former U.S. air force hub in Luzon, to take part in a two-week exchange between the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) and the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
Around 60 Japanese personnel are taking part in exchanges, which began on November 27 and will conclude on December 11, and will aim to “deepen mutual understanding and strengthen the defense cooperation,” the ASDF said in a statement.
Aside from the historic nature of the event, the arrival of the fighters, which were dispatched along with a refueling aircraft and a transport airplane, marked an important step forward in the security ties between Japan and the Philippines, Lt. Col. Shotaro Arisawa, an ASDF squadron commanding officer, said at a ceremony at Clark, Kyodo News reported.
The past decade has seen Japan and the Philippines boost defense cooperation out of a shared sense of threat from China, with which they both have unresolved maritime and territorial disputes. A particular driver has been China’s assertive military activities in the South China Sea.
Col. Leo Fontanilla, a commander of the PAF, said in response that the Philippine military will continue to work “hand-in-hand” with the ASDF “to advance our friendship and partnership and to strengthen both our air forces to effectively and efficiently sustain peace and stability in our region.”
During Japan’s wartime occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945, Clark Air Base was used by both the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japanese Army Air Force as a military airfield for fighters, bombers, and transport aircraft. In the latter stages of the Pacific War, it was used to launch bombing attacks, including kamikaze suicide attacks, against U.S. forces, which reoccupied Clark in early 1945.
The Japanese milestone comes shortly after reports that the Philippines could soon also welcome U.S. troops back to Subic Bay, the massive former U.S. naval station around 50 kilometers from Clark Air Base, once one of the largest American military bases outside the United States.
The U.S. withdrew from Subic in 1992, and the former base is still dotted with vestiges of the American presence, from steel watchtowers and concrete naval ammunition bunkers to the squat bungalows once occupied by U.S. personnel and their families. But they could soon return, under the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between Manila and Washington.
EDCA allows the U.S. to build and operate facilities on five Philippine military bases and rotate in troops for prolonged stays. Last month, the U.S. government announced plans to spend $66.5 million on training and warehouse facilities at three of the bases included in EDCA, which was signed in 2014 but largely lapsed under the leadership of the U.S.-skeptical President Rodrigo Duterte. At around the same time, reports emerged that the U.S. was seeking five more bases to be included in EDCA, one of which was Subic Bay.
To be sure, U.S. ships and submarines have paid frequent port calls to the old facilities at Subic Bay since 2012, the year that tensions between China and the Philippines rose considerably in the South China Sea but including the base under EDCA would create a more official U.S. presence at the old base.
The growing Japanese and U.S. security presence in the Philippines, even if only relatively embryonic in the former case, points to the growing convergence of interests between the nations most concerned with China’s rising maritime and naval power. As long as Beijing keeps up the pressure on enforcing its maximalist “nine-dash line” claim, such interactions can be expected to both broaden and deepen.