During a bilateral meeting at the November 18-19 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in Manila, Philippine president Benigno Aquino and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe agreed in principle to negotiate the transfer of defense equipment and technology from the Japan Self-Defense Forces to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). If completed, this accord would be Japan’s first defense agreement with an Asian country. More significantly, it is an indication that both countries are determined to pursue a strategic partnership in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in Asia.

The two countries are exploring a strategic partnership to complement their bilateral alliances with the United States. This partnership is made operational by regular bilateral consultations between their heads of state, exchanges between the Philippine Department of National Defense and the Japanese Ministry of Defense, and naval exercises between the Philippine Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). In the near future, these will be complemented by the provision of defense equipment by Japan to the Philippines and the access for JSDF ships and planes to Philippine bases, enabling Japan to better patrol the South China Sea.

An Evolving Strategic Partnership

 Both the Philippines and Japan have conducted high-level meetings and consultations to solidify their security cooperation. These consultations enable both countries to discuss common challenges, including the apparent assertiveness of China, and the possibility of sharing strategies in dealing with those issues. The 2012 Statement of Intent on Defense Cooperation and Exchanges between the Department of National Defense and the Ministry of Defense provides the institutional framework for defense exchanges and cooperation from the ministerial and senior officer to working and unit-to-unit levels.  As of 2014, the Philippine Navy and JMSDF have conducted two staff-to-staff talks which have facilitated numerous ship visits, education, and training exchanges, and visits of high-level naval officials from both countries.

The 2012 agreement also provides the institutional framework for bilateral defense cooperation between the AFP and JSDF on a broad range of issues such as maritime security, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response. In May 2015, The Philippines and Japan held a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea. Japan sent two JMSDF destroyers—the JS Harusame and Amigri—which conducted a training exercise with the Philippine Navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz focused on communication strategies to respond to “unplanned encounters at sea.” A few weeks after President Aquino’s June 2015 state visit to Japan, a JMSDF reconnaissance plane landed on the western Philippine island of Palawan to take part in a five-day training exercise with the Philippine Navy. The training activity focused on developing the two countries’ naval fleet skills and interoperability in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, particularly search and rescue of stricken vessels or downed aircraft in the high seas. In 2012, four JMSDF ships visited the Philippines. Two JMSDF ships made a port call in Manila in 2013, and seven more visited the Philippines in 2014. By October, another seven JMSDF ships had already made port calls in Manila and Subic Bay in 2015.

During President Aquino’s June 2015 state visit to Japan, Japanese government sources revealed that he and Prime Minister Abe agreed to start negotiations on the transfer of military equipment, with P-3C Orion patrol aircraft among the potential export items from Japan. After Aquino and Abe’s November 2015 meeting in Manila, Tokyo announced that it plans to immediately transfer to the Philippine Navy three JMSDF Beechcraft TC-90 King Air patrol planes with basic surface and air surveillance radar, to be followed in the near future by P-3C Orions. Japan hopes that by transferring secondhand JSDF reconnaissance planes to the AFP, it can substantially upgrade the Philippines’ surveillance capabilities in response to China’s growing naval presence in the South China Sea.

During his June 2015 state visit, President Aquino also announced the forthcoming negotiation of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow the JSDF access to Philippine military bases, including to refuel its ships and planes and to hold joint exercises with the AFP. Defense Secretary Voltair Gazmin said on June 26 that Philippine-Japan defense cooperation already comes in many forms, including educational and personnel exchanges and joint training between the AFP and JSDF.  But he said that in order to train together more substantively, the two countries must formulate a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to allow their defense forces to conduct joint field exercises.

Sheldon Simon has noted that “A SOFA with Japan would give the Philippines access to training from Japan’s highly developed maritime forces, repair services for the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, and maritime reconnaissance data. All these become more important as the Philippines acquires additional Japanese [defense] equipment.” The JSDF’s use of Philippine bases on a limited and rotational basis will also be helpful as Japan actively pursues its policy of “proactive contribution to peace” in Asia. With refueling and basing facilities in the Philippines, units of the JSDF can conduct joint patrols with their U.S. counterparts for longer periods of time and over a larger area of the South China Sea. President Aquino, however, pointed out that Manila and Tokyo need to work out the exact terms of the agreement and that the Philippine Senate would have to concur to such an agreement with Japan as it did in the cases of the VFAs with Australia and the United States.

Way Forward

 Along with the transfer of JSDF equipment to the AFP, a SOFA between the Philippines and Japan will cement the strategic partnership between the two countries. A SOFA will qualitatively transform this security partnership since access to Philippine bases will enable Japanese air and naval assets to patrol the South China Sea and support U.S. forces in times of crisis. The agreement will also give the Philippines the opportunity to train with Japan’s highly developed maritime forces and access its maritime reconnaissance data. If the Philippines and Japan find it in their interests to strengthen their newfound security partnership and ensure its long-term viability, they should start negotiations for a SOFA as soon as possible.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a full professor (on sabbatical leave) in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies. He is currently the U.S.-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative Researcher from the Philippines based in the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. Professor De Castro’s research interests include Philippine-U.S. security relations, Philippine defense and foreign policies, U.S. defense and foreign policies in East Asia, and the international politics of East Asia.