In China’s shadow, Philippines and Japan sign groundbreaking defense pact

Reciprocal Access Agreement provides framework for security operations including joint military drills and maritime patrols.
Jason Gutierrez
In China’s shadow, Philippines and Japan sign groundbreaking defense pact Philippines’ Secretary of Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. (third from left), Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo (second from left), Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara (third from right) and Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa (second from right) hold a 2+2 meeting at a hotel in Metro Manila, July 8, 2024.
Ted Aljibe/AFP

UPDATED at 11:36 a.m. ET on 2024-07-08

The Philippines and Japan signed a defense pact Monday that will allow troops to be deployed in each other’s country, a landmark agreement seen as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Filipino Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) at a ceremony in Manila witnessed by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. 

Japan’s foreign and defense ministers were in the Philippine capital for so-called “two-plus-two” meetings with their Filipino counterparts.

The RAA serves as a framework for security operations and training between the two nations, including joint military drills and maritime patrols in South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing but that lie within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

Japan has pursued similar agreements with a handful of countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, but this is a first in Asia. 

It also signifies the first time Japanese troops will be allowed to return to Philippine soil since the Imperial army’s occupation during World War II.

Speaking after the signing, Kamikawa hailed the pact as a great achievement that would help “maintain and strengthen a free and open international order based on the rule of law.”

Teodoro said the deal was a step forward for the region and would add another layer to bilateral and defense relations. It would also help “uphold the essence, principles, and concepts of international law particularly UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” he said.

Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations were strategically important for Japan, as they are situated at a key junction of its sea-lanes.

He added Japan was keen to deepen trilateral and quadrilateral ties, with the Philippines, United States and Australia.

The Philippine defense and foreign secretaries (right, second from right) join hands with their Japanese counterparts (left, second from left) after their “2+2” meeting at the Shangri-La Hotel in Taguig City, Metro Manila, July 8, 2024. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

The signing of the RAA comes amid escalating tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.

On June 17, Filipino officials said China Coast Guard personnel, armed with pikes and machetes, punctured Philippine boats and seized firearms during a resupply mission to an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal.

One Filipino sailor lost a finger in the clash, the third such encounter this year in which Philippine personnel have been hurt.

On Monday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo thanked Japan for standing by the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China.

He also praised Tokyo for supporting the rules-based international order, including a 2016 international arbitration ruling that found China had violated Manila’s sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.

“Amidst the backdrop of the geopolitical situation in this and other regions, which has put the stability and predictability of the rules-based international order under stress, we discussed global and regional issues of common concern,” Manalo said during the two-plus-two meetings.

Chester Cabalza, president of International Development and Security Cooperation, a Philippine think-tank, said the defense deal was “groundbreaking” and would serve as a counterweight to China in the region. 

“The significance of the military pact enlivens the agility and deterrence of Manila with the quantum leap support of a strategic and technologically advanced neighbor like Japan,” Cabalza told BenarNews.

Don McLain Gill, a political analyst at the international studies department of De La Salle University, said the agreement would act as an independent stabilizing force. At the same time, it would be compatible with U.S. efforts to form a network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. 

“Japan has played a significant role in crafting a more robust framework for Manila-Tokyo ties, and Japan has also demonstrated its steadfast commitment in being the Philippines’ major economic and defense partner,” he said.

“In a scenario where the U.S. may dial down its support for Manila, our partnership with Japan is likely to remain steadfast and consistent.”

Filipino members of Lila Pilipina, a group representing “comfort women” who were raped and tortured during the Japanese occupation in World War II, and other activists protest in front of the Japanese Embassy, Pasay City, Metro Manila on July 8, 2024. The activists opposed the signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) between Manila and Tokyo. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

Following the signing of the RAA, China reiterated that bilateral cooperation should not “target” third parties.

“The exchange and cooperation between countries should not undermine the mutual understanding and trust between other countries in the region. It should not threaten regional peace and stability, target any third party, or harm the interests of any third party,” foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said in a news briefing on Monday, when asked about China’s reaction to the Manila-Tokyo defense pact.

“The Asia-Pacific region does not need any military bloc, still less groupings that incite bloc confrontation or a new Cold War,” he said.

 He also reminded Japan of its “aggression and colonial rule” over the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries during World War II.

Manila has a similar defense deal with Washington, the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, which sets the terms under which American military personnel can operate on Philippine soil. 

The U.S. now has access to nine military bases across the archipelago and has pledged U.S. $100 million for upgrades.

Jojo Riñoza and Gerard Carreon contributed to this report from Manila.

This story has been updated to include comments from China’s foreign ministry, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo.


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