President Benigo Aquino III’s first state visit to Japan reflected the increasing tempo of security cooperation between these two U.S. allies that are facing a common security challenge in their maritime domains—China’s maritime expansion. President Aquino met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss how they can strengthen their countries’ strategic partnership in the face of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. In the first day of his visit, President Aquino signed a contract with Japan United Corporation for the acquisition of ten patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). Funded by the Japan International Cooperation (JICA), the Japan United Cooperation will build ten 40-meter long multirole response vessels (MRRVs) that will be delivered to the PCG starting 2016. With their top speed of 16 knots and a range of 1,500 miles, the MRRVs will be deployed in the Coast Guard Districts across the country including in the island of Palawan—the country’s most western part that faces the South China Sea. The deal also includes the supply of standard spare parts and tools, crew training, ocean transportation, and marine insurance.

The following day, President Aquino and Prime Minister Abe signed a Joint Declaration. The five-page document provides a strategic vision to the two countries’ evolving security partnership. It also expressed their commitment to ensure maritime safety and security, including in the South China Sea, and also their serious concern on unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South China Sea including large-scale reclamation and building of outposts. This is directed against China’s constructions of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The declaration includes a detailed action plan for strengthening the two countries’ strategic partnership. Among the areas of cooperation are information sharing on security environment and challenges, information exchange and policy coordination on respective security policies, cooperation on maritime security, including maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance, and most significantly, the provision of defense equipment and technology cooperation. A significant aspect of document is the two countries’ decision to negotiate an agreement for the transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology to the Philippines. In January 2015, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin made a three-day visit in Japan and handed to his Japanese counter-part, Gen Nakatani a wish-list for the AFP that included P-3C Orion patrol aircraft and other radar related equipment.

On June 5, President Aquino announced that the two countries would soon start talks on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow the Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) access to Philippine military bases. In a press briefing in Tokyo, President Aquino revealed that Japanese and Filipino officials discussed the possibility of SOFA since both countries have boosted their security relationship significantly over the past few years. In early June 2013, Secretary Gazmin raised the possibility of allowing ships and planes of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) access to the former American military facilities in the Philippines if Tokyo is interested in negotiating and signing an access agreement with Manila. The possible SDF use of Philippine bases on a limited and rotational basis would be useful for Japan as it actively pursues a policy of Pro-Active Contribution to Peace in East Asia. With refuelling and basing facilities in the Philippines, units of the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) and MSDF can conduct joint patrols with their American counter-parts for a longer period of time and over a larger area of the South China Sea.

Prior to President Aquino’s visit to Tokyo, the Philippine Navy and the MSDF held a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea as an indication of the two country’s growing security partnership. In early May 2015, two MSDF destroyers—the JS Harusame and Amigri–conducted a training exercise with a Philippine Navy (PN) frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz on communication strategies to respond to “unplanned encounters at sea.” Known as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), the MSDF-PN joint naval exercise was part of a security agreement signed by Tokyo and Manila in January 2015 aimed at tightening security cooperation between the two U.S. allies. Security analysts noted the significance of this low-key naval exercise as this signalled Japan’s growing interest in the region in the light of Tokyo’s plan to assist the U.S. 7th Fleet in patrolling the South China Sea.

About Renato Cruz de Castro

Renato Cruz De Castro is a distinguished university professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and holds the Dr. Aurelio Calderon Chair in Philippines-American Relation. As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Albert Del Rosario Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ADRI), he writes monthly opinion columns for the Philippine Star and Business World.