MANILA - Japan and the Philippines on Thursday broadly agreed on a pact for the transfer of defense equipment and technology, as they step up their cooperation over China’s muscle-flexing in regional waters.
The deal was struck between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino after they finished attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Manila.
“We have taken a significant step forward in enhancing our defense and security relations by agreeing in principle (on the accord),” Aquino told a joint press conference. “We are hopeful that we can conclude and sign this agreement sooner rather than later.”
It is Japan’s first such agreement with another Asian country, and is a sign that Tokyo recognizes the importance of beefing up the maritime capacity of the Philippines, the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
If the pact is signed, it will allow Japan to provide Self-Defense Forces equipment to the Philippines.
Abe said there had been a request from Aquino for the provision of large patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and that Japan will consider the specifics of the matter.
Japan is also considering providing Maritime Self-Defense Force TC-90 training aircraft, according to officials in Tokyo.
The Philippines could be the fifth country for Japan to have such an accord on the transfer of defense equipment and technology with, following the United States, Britain, Australia and France.
Japan hopes that by providing secondhand aircraft from the SDF, it can help upgrade the Philippines’ maritime surveillance capability as a way of keeping China’s growing assertiveness in check.
Japan has been in step with the United States, its long-standing ally, in forging closer security ties with regional partners. Also attending the APEC summit, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled Washington’s plan to transfer two additional ships to the Philippine Navy.
Abe and Aquino, who held talks for the seventh time, agreed in June in Tokyo to launch negotiations on an accord of this kind in the fields of disaster relief and maritime security.
Abe said he shared concerns with Aquino about unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South China Sea, such as China continuing with rapid and massive reclamation activities, despite regional opposition.
Abe told reporters that Japan supports the Philippines’ efforts to settle its territorial disputes with China through international law, citing Manila’s case at an arbitration court in The Hague.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea. In addition to the Philippines, there are four other claimants: Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China has defended its reclamation work and island-building in the contested waters as not just meeting its defense needs but also providing an “international public service” for maritime safety.
Japan is not directly involved in the overlapping territorial claims. But Abe has said he sees peace and stability there as crucial to the Japanese economy, as $5 trillion worth of trade every year passes through that sea, seen as a key shipping route for oil and other imports.
Among other issues, Abe disclosed that Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko are scheduled to visit the Philippines “early next year” on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties.
According to diplomatic sources, the two countries are planning the visit for late January.
It will be “an auspicious event,” marking the start of a series of celebrations for the anniversary, and will be “a gesture of new impetus for our friendship,” Abe said.
Japan and the Philippines, after the Abe-Aquino talks, exchanged notes on a commuter rail project connecting the Philippine capital Manila and Malolos City in Bulacan province to the northwest.
Japan has pledged a ¥240 billion (around $2 billion) loan to the Philippines for this project.
Japan and the Philippines also signed a social security pact under which expatriate employees will no longer be required to pay pension premiums in both countries.