Japan and Philippines Strengthen Defense Ties Amid Concerns Over China’s Assertiveness

Japan and the Philippines signed a key agreement on Monday, enabling the deployment of Japanese forces for joint exercises in the Southeast Asian nation. This agreement, known as the Reciprocal Access Agreement, also allows Filipino forces to participate in joint combat training in Japan. The signing ceremony, witnessed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., was held in Manila by Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa. The agreement will come into effect after ratification by both countries’ legislatures.

Kamikawa hailed the signing as a “groundbreaking achievement” that will further strengthen defense cooperation between the two nations.

The Japanese and Philippine officials expressed grave concerns regarding China’s “dangerous and escalatory actions” at Second Thomas Shoal, the site of a recent confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces in the South China Sea. This vital global trade route is claimed almost entirely by China but is also contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

In a joint statement, they highlighted the need for the international community to advocate for “maintaining and strengthening the free and open international order based on the rule of law” within the disputed waters.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian stated that “the Asia-Pacific region does not need military blocs, let alone small groupings that instigate bloc confrontations or a new Cold War,” reminding Japan of its wartime atrocities in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.

“Japan should seriously reflect on its history of aggression and act cautiously in the field of military security,” the spokesperson added.

This defense pact with the Philippines, which includes live-fire drills, is the first of its kind for Japan in Asia. Similar accords were signed with Australia in 2022 and Britain in 2023.

Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan has taken steps to bolster its security and defensive capabilities, including a counterstrike capability that deviates from the country’s postwar principle of focusing solely on self-defense. Japan is doubling its defense spending over a five-year period ending in 2027, aiming to become the world’s third-largest military spender after the United States and China.

Many of Japan’s Asian neighbors, including the Philippines, were subject to Japanese aggression until its defeat in World War II. Tokyo’s efforts to strengthen its military role and spending could be a sensitive issue. However, Japan and the Philippines have steadily strengthened their defense and security ties.

Kishida’s actions align with Marcos’ efforts to forge security alliances to bolster the Philippine military’s limited capacity to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea.

The United States has been strengthening an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to effectively counter China, including in any potential future confrontation over Taiwan, and reassure its Asian allies. Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies of the U.S. Their leaders held three-way talks in April at the White House, where President Joe Biden reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to defend both Japan and the Philippines.

Japan has a longstanding territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, Chinese and Philippine coast guard and navy vessels have been involved in a series of tense confrontations in the South China Sea since last year.

In the most severe confrontation so far, Chinese coast guard personnel, armed with knives, spears, and an ax aboard motorboats, repeatedly rammed and destroyed two Philippine navy supply vessels on June 17. This chaotic face-off at disputed Second Thomas Shoal resulted in injuries to several Filipino sailors. Chinese coast guard personnel seized seven navy rifles.

The Japanese and Philippine officials stated that China’s actions at the shoal “obstructed freedom of navigation and disrupted supply lines, thus, increasing tensions.”

Kihara stated in a news conference that Japan “has firmly opposed the dangerous and coercive use of maritime security agencies and maritime militia vessels.”

The Philippines lodged a strong protest against these actions and demanded $1 million for the damage and the return of the rifles. China accused the Philippines of instigating the violence, claiming that the Filipino sailors had strayed into what it called Chinese territorial waters despite warnings.

Japan and the United States were among the first to express alarm over the Chinese actions and call on Beijing to adhere to international laws. Washington is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships, and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.