A ruling by the top court in the Philippines that opens the door to increased military cooperation with the United States could also bolster Manila’s security ties with Tokyo as the Southeast Asian nation grapples with an increasingly bellicose Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Philippine-U.S. pact, which expands military exchanges and gives American troops access to Philippine bases, is “critical” to the U.S. rebalance to Asia, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington. “At the same time, moving forward with the enhanced defense cooperation agreement will accelerate Japan-Philippine cooperation.”
According to Cronin, the growing defense ties are likely to be incremental, but their pace may depend on what action Beijing takes.
“While this will be gradual, such cooperation will also be event-driven, as in response to China’s assertive actions,” he said.
Analysts note the value Manila places on its relationship with Tokyo.
“Next to the U.S., Japan is undoubtedly the Philippines’ most important security partner,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila.
Under the Abe administration, said Heydarian, bilateral relations have rapidly blossomed into a robust strategic partnership, with a focus on maritime security.
In late November, Tokyo and Manila broadly agreed on a pact for the transfer of defense equipment and technology, a move likely spurred — at least in part — by mutual concern over Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the disputed South China Sea.
The deal would be Japan’s first such accord with another Asian nation and its fifth overall. Japan’s other such partners are the United States, Britain, Australia and France.
Once inked, the pact would allow Tokyo to send Self-Defense Forces equipment to the Philippines.
Despite being one of the most vocal opponents of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, analysts say Manila is ill-equipped to challenge China’s moves. In an effort to alleviate this shortcoming, Manila has looked both to Tokyo and Washington.
Japan has already agreed to supply the Philippines with a low-interest loan to purchase a fleet of 10 patrol vessels and has reportedly received requests from Philippine President Benigno Aquino for larger coast guard patrol vessels and PC-3 submarine-hunting planes. Media reports have also said that Japan hopes to donate three used Beechcraft TC-90 King Air aircraft to the Philippines. The aircraft, which Japan uses to train military pilots, can be fitted with basic surface and air surveillance radar.
These moves have been in lock-step with Washington, which has also scaled up its assistance to Manila as part of its so-called rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.
Experts such as Heydarian say Japan hopes that by providing aircraft, ships and other gear, it can help beef up the Philippines’ maritime surveillance abilities as a way to check China’s growing territorial ambitions in both the South and East China seas.
Japanese government officials, including former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, have linked the two maritime disputes, warning against any precedent that might be set if large states are allowed to push around smaller ones.
While China claims most of the South China Sea, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to territory there.
Japan is not directly involved in the overlapping claims, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he views stability there as crucial to the Japanese economy. The South China Sea is a shipping route for $5 trillion of oil and other goods every year.
Heydarian said that although Abe was successful in his quest to pass contentious security legislation last September, problems remain between Manila and Tokyo.
“I doubt there is enough political capital in Tokyo and support in the Philippines to push for an EDCA-like agreement,” he said, referring to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between Manila and Washington that was ruled constitutional Tuesday.
“This will require a treaty alliance, necessitating senate concurrence, and Japan has yet to fully settle its historical baggage from the horrors of World War II,” Heydarian said. He cited the example of revisionist statements on the issue of “comfort women,” or girls and young women who were forced to provide sex in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Instead, Heydarian said, the two nations will likely continue to augment their relatively modest but growing maritime security cooperation.
Many observers expect a visit by Defense Minister Gen Nakatani to the Philippines this year to highlight that slow but steady expansion of security ties, including the acquisition by Manila of more lethal Japanese military exports and aid.
They are also likely to discuss the Philippines’ arbitration case in the Hague over its territorial dispute with China — especially if there is a favorable verdict by the time of the visit.
Such a verdict, Heydarian said, “could provide a legal pretext” for the Maritime Self-Defense Force to conduct regular freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, particularly in conjunction with the U.S.
With a spring ruling, about the time of the Philippine election, “China is sure to react badly when its illegal nine-dash line claim to most of the South China Sea is ruled as inconsistent with international law — as the tribunal will almost surely rule,” said CNAS’s Cronin.
“Much of this will come to pass about the time of the visit and the Shangri-la Dialogue, so it will be a very eventful May or June 2016,” Cronin said.