For the first time since the Second World War, a Japanese naval reconnaissance plane landed on the western most Philippine island of Palawan to take part in a training exercise with the Philippine Navy (PN) from June 22 to June 26. On June 21, a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MDSF) P3-C Orion with 20 crew members from Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture arrived in the Philippines to take part in a training exercise that showed the increasing tempo of Philippine-Japan maritime security cooperation. According to the PN press release, the training activity focused on developing the fleet skills and the interoperability of the two countries’ navies in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HA/DR) operations, particularly on search and rescue of stricken vessels or downed aircraft in the high seas. It involved one fixed wing maritime aircraft from the two navies and a PN patrol vessel. The exercise was conducted on the high seas, approximately140 kilometers northwest of Palawan. Officials from both countries emphasized that the training activity was primarily a disaster-relief and search-and rescue exercise, not a reconnaissance operation. Both sides acknowledged that this joint exercise also aimed to foster camaraderie and to strengthen the budding PN- MSDF maritime security partnership.
On the first day of the exercise, the MSDF P3-C Orion, with three Filipino crew members on board, flew over the edge of the Reed Bank. The Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, accompanied by a smaller PN Islander patrol plane, practiced search and rescue patterns, which are essential in any humanitarian assistance and rescue response. The following day, the two aircrafts conducted another search and rescue operation drill 93 kilometers northwest of Palawan, again near Reed Bank. MSDF Commander Hiromo Hamano described the exercise as a success and proposed that HADR/SAR training between the MSDF and PN be continued. This is the second MSDF-PN joint training exercise this season. The first was held on May 12 when two MSDF destroyers and a PN frigate held a drill on the Code for Unplanned Encounter at Sea (CUES) near Subic Bay in Luzon.
In the aftermath of the PN-MSDF joint training, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin acknowledged an increasing convergence of security concerns between the Philippines and Japan as he called for the need for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries. His statement echoed President Benigno Aquino’s earlier announcement that the Philippines is ready to start talks with Japan for a SOFA that would allow Self Defense Forces’ (SDF) ships and planes to refuel in the Philippines and to hold joint exercise with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Secretary Gazmin also stated that the two countries have commenced discussions for an agreement that will provide for the transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology to the Philippines. Japanese government sources revealed that that a P3-C Orion reconnaissance aircraft and radar related equipment are being considered for transfer to the AFP.
This joint PN-MSDF maritime activity is part of a broader effort by the Philippines and Japan to boost their strategic partnership in the face of China’s naval expansion in the South China Sea. Both sides claimed that the activity is aimed at developing the PN’s and MSDF’s fleet skills and interoperability in conducting HA/DR operations in the high seas. However, the activity also demonstrated a future plausible scenario in which the SDF can conduct long-range patrols alone or in concert with the PN or the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. Given access to Philippine bases for its refueling and maintenance needs, MSDF air and naval units can operate for a longer time and over a wider area of the South China Sea. Such activity is envisioned by the June 4, 2015 Japan-Philippine Joint Declaration that emphasizes the importance of security cooperation between the Philippines and Japan, and other allies in the region, “at a time when the security environment in the region is faced with many challenges.”
For Manila, a strategic partnership with Tokyo is part of its comprehensive efforts to avoid becoming economically dependent on Beijing. Unlike most Southeast Asian countries that have China as their number one trading partner and Official Development Assistance (ODA) donor, the Philippines has Japan as its most important trading partner and ODA donor. For Tokyo, on the other hand, a security relationship with Manila converges with Washington’s efforts to revitalize its alliance as the Philippines bears the brunt of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The development of a Philippine-Japan strategic partnership is part of a trend developing among U.S. allies and security partners in the region in the face of China’s growing naval power. These partners regard American strategic presence as the best guarantee of peace and security in East Asia; however, they also see the urgency to establish and foster security relationships among themselves to amplify the stabilizing effects of U.S. forward-deployed presence and alliances in the region.