When Japan announced an unprecedented plan in early 2023 to help bolster defense and security in like-minded countries, the Philippines was high on its list. Tokyo’s Official Security Assistance program is expected to provide Manila with radar and satellite communications to strengthen maritime security, Reuters news agency reported, including defending its primary routes in the disputed South China Sea. The announcement came on the heels of Japan’s $4.3 billion pledge of development aid and private investment in the Philippines.
Only months later, Japan, the Philippines and the United States participated in trilateral exercises for the first time. The inaugural Coast Guard drills brought more than 500 personnel to waters off the Philippines’ Bataan province to rehearse anti-terrorism, counterpiracy, and search and rescue operations.
The milestones marked a deepening defense engagement between Manila and Tokyo, fostered by the U.S. and built upon decades of economic partnership and cultural exchange. The Philippines has been at the forefront of Japan’s decadeslong drive to enrich security ties in Southeast Asia, wrote Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Common security challenges make collaboration a natural response for both archipelagic nations, which have “experienced a steady rise in security pressure from Beijing,” Chang wrote. “For the Philippines, that has been manifested in Chinese maritime intimidation, opportunistic occupation of Mischief Reef, and blockade of Scarborough Shoal near the disputed Spratly Islands,” he wrote. “China declared an East China Sea air-defense identification zone near Japan and harassed Japanese vessels around the disputed Senkaku Islands.”
Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies with the U.S. The nations also neighbor Taiwan, where the People’s Republic of China continues to step up military pressure amid repeated threats to annex the democratically governed island by force. Such a crisis would not only threaten Japan and the Philippines but, given the importance of the Taiwan Strait to commercial shipping worldwide, would also put trillions of dollars in global economic activity at risk.
In February 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed their defense forces would cooperate on disaster relief operations in the Philippines, Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun reported. The arrangement was seen as a move toward a pact that would allow each nation’s forces to train in the other’s territory. Negotiations for a Reciprocal Access Agreement began in 2022 with the aim of enhancing interoperability, according to news reports.
A more expansive deal, similar to a Visiting Forces Agreement, could also be forthcoming. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said during an August 2023 congressional hearing on tensions in the South China Sea that Manila is brokering such a deal with a key partner “near China,” the Asia Times website reported. It would allow the nations to broaden joint military exercises and defense equipment exchanges and could lead to joint operations during contingencies.
“Japan is an ally, and with ongoing territorial disputes over our waters, we stand to benefit from stronger security cooperation with our allies,” Philippine Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said in early 2023, according to Asia Times.
During an August meeting with the chief of Japan’s Komeito political party, Marcos highlighted the need for bilateral security cooperation in “preserving the peace and allowing the free conduct of trade and shipping in the South China Sea,” according to the news website.
He also emphasized a commitment to trilateral cooperation among Japan, the Philippines and the U.S., which analysts say is central to expanding deterrence across the Indo-Pacific and particularly in contested waterways such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.