• Kyodo

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Philippine Ambassador Manuel Lopez says his nation should bolster maritime cooperation with Japan and the United States as it seeks to deter China’s growing assertiveness at sea.

In an interview Friday in Tokyo, Lopez said the Philippines is “not a military power” and is “very vulnerable to more incursions by China,” adding Manila needs the help of countries such as the United States and Japan to help resolve ongoing maritime problems.

“I’m rather alarmed at recent developments, especially after seeing photographs of some structures being built,” he said, referring to images of apparent land reclamation work by China under way at the contested Johnson Reef, a shoal it controls.

Also this month, a Chinese ship rammed a Vietnamese vessel amid a standoff over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig near the fiercely disputed Paracel Islands. Some Chinese ships fired water cannons, reportedly injuring Vietnamese personnel.

Vietnam and the Philippines are prominent among Southeast Asian nations in resisting China’s claim to most of the South China Sea. But Beijing is also at odds with Tokyo over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, uninhabited islets that China calls Diaoyu.

Given the limits of the Philippine military in resisting China, Lopez said Manila needs to work closely with Washington and Tokyo and to draw on their strengths in maritime security. Japan pledged last year to provide the Philippines with 10 coast guard patrol ships.

“Your experience in maritime matters will certainly be of great help for us,” Lopez said of Japan. Further, he said, merely knowing that Japan and the United States are “there to come to our help” would boost the morale of Philippine troops.

Regarding the United States, an ally the Philippines shares with Japan, the ambassador said he hopes a new Washington-Manila defense cooperation pact signed last month will be a “deterrent to China” and make it “more difficult to bully” the Philippines.

The bubbling tensions in the South China Sea come at a time when Japan is at a crucial stage of debating whether it should start exercising the right to defend allies under armed attack through limited use of collective self-defense.

On Thursday, a panel of security experts recommended that the government lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on engaging in collective self-defense, a move Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing hard.

Lopez said he welcomes Abe’s stance on the issue and sees no problem in coming to the aid of an ally “if there is really a compelling reason to assist your neighbors.”

He praised the overseas activities of the Self-Defense Forces, including troops’ participation in disaster relief operations in the typhoon-hit southern Philippines last year.

Lopez also noted that Japan and the Philippines enjoy close economic ties. He said both sides can expect to benefit economically through increased tourism, helped by a growing number of flights between the two countries.

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