Philippines’ Marcos visits Japan amid geopolitical, regional tensions

Aie Balagtas See
2023.02.08
Manila
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Philippines’ Marcos visits Japan amid geopolitical, regional tensions Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and First Lady Louise Araneta-Marcos wave as they prepare to board a flight in Manila for an official visit to Japan, Feb. 8, 2023.
Handout photo/Philippine Presidential Communications Office

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. embarked Wednesday on a four-day working visit to Japan to boost investment and defense ties, days after his government agreed to give U.S. forces greater access to military bases amid Chinese threats to Taiwan.

During his first presidential trip to Tokyo, the Philippine leader will meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose country is also engaged in a maritime territorial dispute with China – in Japan’s case, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The visit is expected to generate billions worth of investment pledges from Tokyo to Manila. 

Marcos said he and Kishida would work to “deepen cooperation” in a wide range of areas, including  humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, a move that would soon allow Japanese troops to be deployed in the Philippines.

“My bilateral visit to Japan is essential,” Marcos said in a statement as he departed from Manila on Wednesday.

“It is part of a larger foreign policy agenda to forge closer political ties, stronger defense and security cooperation, as well as lasting economic partnerships with major counties in the region amid a challenging global environment.”

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said it expected Marcos’ trip, which goes until Feb. 12, to clinch 150 billion Philippine pesos (U.S. $2.7 billion) in investment deals that could create 8,000 jobs.

Marcos will also witness the signing of at least seven key agreements focusing on infrastructure development, defense, agriculture and information and communications technology.

“The official working visit is expected to reaffirm the strong and vibrant relations between the two countries. It also seeks to maximize the full potential of the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership in all its aspects and facilitate closer defense, security, political, economic and people-to-people ties,” Neal Imperial, the department’s assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters.

“Japan has been a very important partner in providing assistance in relation to disasters,” Imperial said.

According to Chester Cabalza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, Marcos’ trip is strategic because Japan and the Philippines, given the location of their islands, would bear the brunt of any spillover war if China attacked Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a Chinese province.

“The trip is valuable to increase multilateral efforts and dialogue with strategic partners since Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan are part of the first island chain that will experience war shocks and immediate casualties of attack in case the forcible Taiwan retake happens,” said Cabalza, who heads the International Development and Security Cooperation, a Manila think-tank.

Japan could also help mobilize forces to evacuate Filipino and Taiwanese refugees in northern Luzon in expanded sites that fall under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between Manila and the United States. Last week, under its EDCA agreement with the UnitedStates, the Philippines agreed to grant the U.S. military expanded access to military bases in the Southeast Asian country, which is strategically located in the South China Sea and close to Taiwan.

Manila, one of the claimant states in the South China Sea, has its own territorial dispute with Beijing in the waterway, although Marcos, since taking office in June, has pursued warm ties with both China and the United States, rival superpowers. 

“Japan has a world war experience that the Philippines can learn from in case war erupts. The reliable neighbor has aligned regional interests and our military capabilities are complimentary,” Cabalza told BenarNews.

Tokyo has also been “sympathetic” to the Philippines’ military modernization program and sent observers to join U.S.-Philippine military exercises last year, he noted.

“Japan has also been helping in the modernization of the Philippines Coast Guard as the first line of defense in the maritime boundaries and domains,” Cabalza added.

During a visit to the Philippines last year, Tsuyohito Iwamoto, the Japanese vice minister for defense, renewed Tokyo’s commitment to helping the Philippines modernize its military.

Over the past several years, Japan has donated trainer aircraft, spare parts for Huey helicopters and search-and-rescue equipment to the Filipino armed forces. Japan was also involved in the Air Surveillance Radar System Acquisition Project under the military’s 5.5 billion peso ($98 million) modernization program.

Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department at Ateneo De Davao University in southern Davao City, said Marcos’ trip would also be crucial in helping revive a Philippine economy still struggling from a worldwide slowdown due to COVID-19.

“When former President Fidel Ramos took over the country from his predecessor, Cory Aquino, [his] foreign travels helped the country’s economy recover,” Beleno said.

“The pledges coming from other countries where Marcos visited are not automatic and will turn into money. There are procedures for that,” he added.

While in Japan, Marcos’ office said his team would work on further strengthening “the bonds of friendship with a close neighbor, like-minded and future-oriented like us in many ways, and a most reliable partner in times of both crises and prosperity.”

The meeting with Kishida is to “take stock of our bilateral relations and regional cooperation in a broad range of engagements,” from security and economic relations to Manila and Tokyo’s continued commitment to mutual peace and prosperity.  

Japan is the first country that signed a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with the Philippines, through the Philippines-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (PJEPA).

Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Davao City, southern Philippines.

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