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Japan And The Philippines Are Really Close Allies

April 26, 2019

Via DND / dnd.gov.ph

A delegation led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana arrived in Tokyo last week for a ministerial meeting with his Japanese counterpart. The Department of National Defense (DND) described the event as “increasing cooperation at all levels across major services…to deepen exchanges in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster response between ground forces, ship repair and maintenance between maritime forces, and professional airmanship between air forces.”

While details of the conference held by the two parties weren’t revealed, it’s clear that a tangible alliance is now in place whose unstated goal is thwarting China’s maritime claims over Philippine waters.

Since 2015, in fact, the Philippines and Japan agreed to a memorandum on defense cooperation. This has proven very beneficial to the former’s armed forces, whose material shortcomings were taken care of by valuable non-lethal aid. After the recent ministerial meeting in Tokyo, the DND made sure to highlight Japan’s transfer of five propeller-driven patrol aircraft and helicopter spare parts in the last two years. The patron-client relationship has reached a point where, during an official ceremony for receiving UH-1 helicopter parts from Japan in March, Lorenzana told the local media he expected the alliance to grow in the future. While it might not seem like much, these small gifts of planes and spares contributed to the Philippine military’s avowed goal of strengthening its presence in the country’s waters.

One particular contribution by Japan was telling, however. As agreed upon in the bilateral 2015 memorandum, a batch of 44 meter patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) were assembled in Japan and sent to the Philippines. Between 2016 and 2018 a total of 10 ships were turned over and a separate contract for two 90 meter vessels is expected to be finished by 2022. These seacraft, by the way, are unarmed but have weapon mounts for the PCG’s self-defense.

Previous instances of solidarity between the Filipino and Japanese militaries aren’t difficult to recall. Earlier this month the annual Balikatan exercises welcomed military observers from several countries and Japanese officers, rather than Chinese, were among the favored guests. In mid-2018 two of the largest Philippine Navy (PN) ships joined a flotilla led by a JMSDF aircraft carrier for the US-led RIMPAC in Hawaii. The frequent stops by Japan’s warships in local naval bases and ports are welcomed. Meanwhile, visits by Japanese officers to the Philippines are now so common they hardly make the news. The extent of the cooperation is so broad at this point any indication of a “drift” toward China looks trivial by comparison. To be fair, the Philippine military maintains its own scheduled activities with the PLA/N except these are often symbolic gestures.

The Philippines relationship with China today is complicated. As the Duterte administration does its best to foster bilateral trade and facilitate generous loans, no clear resolution over the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea is at hand. Ample evidence of harassment, pillaging, and reclamation by Chinese vessels within Philippine waters shows how diplomacy has done little to diffuse a flashpoint. The uncertain outcome of this particular issue has entrenched the Philippine military’s commitment to beef up; the air force and navy have their own budgets for acquisitions and modernizing to aid territorial defense.

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