A Maritime Self-Defense Force flotilla of three ships arrived in the Philippines early Sunday on a goodwill visit — the first to include a Japanese submarine in 15 years — amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
The training submarine Oyashio, accompanied by the destroyers Ariake and Setogiri, made a port call at Subic Bay, home of a former U.S. naval base, ahead of planned open sea drills. Some 500 Japanese personnel, including 55 officer candidates, are taking part in the confidence-building exercise.
Philippine Navy public affairs officer Capt. Lued Lincuna said the three MSDF vessels would be staying in Subic Bay until Wednesday.
The two destroyers are then scheduled to continue on to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for a similar visit. The trip to Cam Ranh Bay will take the two vessels through the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam and three other nations are involved in simmering territorial disputes with China.
The visit to the Philippines comes ahead of a much-anticipated arbitration case concerning the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea. Manila expects the court to hand down a ruling before May.
But despite the growing ties between Tokyo and Manila, Lincuna said the visit was “not directed at any other countries.”
“It has nothing to do with China,” Lincuna said.
Beijing lays claim to most of the South China Sea, through which $5 billion in global trade passes each year. It has recently constructed artificial islands in the waters — some home to military-grade airfields, radar systems and weapons — riling neighboring claimants.
For its part, the United States has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises in recent months, sailing ships near disputed islands to underscore the right to freely navigate the seas. Reuters cited an unidentified U.S. official Saturday as saying that a third such exercise was set for early this month.
While not a claimant in the South China Sea, Tokyo has been embroiled in a fight with Beijing over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.
The Japanese decision to send the three vessels to the Philippines, one of the most vocal critics of China’s massive land-reclamation projects in the region, has drawn fire from Beijing. Top Chinese officials have slammed Japan’s push to shore up smaller regional claimants to the waters, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying last month that Beijing was keeping a watchful eye on Tokyo’s moves in the area.
“Japan once illegally occupied China’s islands in the South China Sea during WWII,” Hong said. “We are on high alert against Japan’s attempt to return to the South China Sea through military means.”
The visit to Vietnam is also likely to spur an angry reaction from China.
The arrival of the Japanese vessels coincides with the Balikatan joint exercises between the U.S. and Philippine militaries, which are set to kick off Monday. MSDF personnel will also be in attendance as observers.
Amy Searight, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said last week that Japan is in talks with the Philippines about participating in the joint drills on a regular basis.
“Japan is talking to the Philippines about a status of forces agreement, so that Japan can regularly participate in those kinds of exercises,” Searight told a think tank event in Washington, according to Kyodo News.
The envisioned agreement would govern the operations of the Self-Defense Forces in the Philippines.
“Japan is participating (in the Balikatan drill) as an observer. Japan very much wants to participate more,” she said.
Tokyo has ramped up its cooperation with both Manila and Hanoi, leasing patrol aircraft to the Philippines and building stronger defense ties with Vietnam.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani plans to visit Manila on April 23 and 24 for talks on further deepening security ties, including the possible expansion of joint exercises between the MSDF and the Philippine Navy, reports have said. In late February, Tokyo and Manila signed a defense equipment transfer agreement. This made the Philippines the first Southeast Asian country to have such an agreement with Japan. The agreement promotes the joint production and development of defense equipment and technology, and establishes a legal framework to do so.
According to media reports, the first transfer under the new agreement may be at least five retired MSDF TC-90 aircraft the Japanese government plans to lease to the Philippine Navy. The aircraft could be used for visual monitoring over the Spratly Islands. Discussions on such a lease may take place during Nakatani’s visit slated for later this month.