The Philippines and Japan on Thursday discussed enhancing bilateral cooperation on security in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the contested South China Sea, as Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi paid his first official visit to Manila in that role.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. praised Tokyo for its military and economic aid to his country, after he met with Motegi behind closed doors.
Locsin said they discussed “issues that challenge the backbone of our long ties and make our friendship even stronger for the stress and weight we carry together.”
Among other topics, the two ministers talked about defense and security cooperation amid China’s increasing military influence in the region, they told a joint news conference.
“I was pleased with my candid exchanges with Minister Motegi on issues such as rule of law in the maritime commons and the situation in the West Philippine Sea. We committed to continue our cooperation – bilaterally and in all possible forums – to maintain peace and security, stability and the rule of law in our region,” Locsin said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Beijing, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, have overlapping territorial claims in the mineral-rich South China Sea. Beijing also has overlapping claims with Japan in the East China Sea.
Addressing reporters, Japan’s Motegi said the Philippines held the key “to realizing the free and open Indo-Pacific concept advocated by Japan.”
“The Philippines is located at a great crossroads, which connects the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, as well as the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere,” he said through an interpreter.
“Secretary Locsin and I were able to deepen our discussion from such perspectives and agree to deepen our discussions ... and agree to deepen bilateral cooperation in wide areas including security and enforcement of laws of the seas,” Motegi said.
While China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to maintain peace in region, Beijing has expanded its military presence, establishing bases and placing missiles and other weapons on islands in the South China Sea.
This week, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited the Natuna Islands, a chain located at the southern end of the sea, where he vowed to enforce Jakarta’s sovereignty over those islands, which lie in his country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Jokowi’s government backed up his stand on the issue by sending navy ships and fighter jets to waters off the islands as a response to reports that dozens of Chinese boats, including some coast guard ships, had sailed into the EEZ. On Thursday, Indonesian officials said the Chinese ships had left the waters off the Natunas.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been less aggressive against Chinese encroachment in the sea, despite a 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that ruled in favor of Manila in a case against China.
The court said China, which claims almost of the sea as its territory, had no historical rights to it based on the Nine-Dash-Line boundary on official Chinese maps.
The Philippines and Indonesia are two of the 10 members of ASEAN.
On Thursday, the top diplomats of Japan and the Philippines also exchanged official notes on a planned project in Manila backed by Japan to reinforce bridges so they could withstand large-scale earthquakes.
In addition, Locsin announced that the Philippines had eliminated radiation test requirements for shipments of products from Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. Manila had previously required the test for beef and vegetable imports following the 2011 meltdown of a nuclear power plant that occurred after a massive quake unleashed a deadly tsunami.
The Philippines is the latest country to clear produce from Fukushima, although 20 others, including the United States, have restrictions.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.