Japan is preparing military aid for the Philippines to help secure maritime approaches and safeguard Taiwan’s western flank, officials say, deepening security ties that could lead Japanese forces back there for the first time since World War II.
As it moves away from decades of pacifism, Tokyo worries that the Philippines is a weak link in a chain of islands stretching from the Japanese archipelago to Indonesia through which ships must pass to or from the Pacific Ocean.
The Japanese military’s main concern is a Chinese attack on neighboring Taiwan that could spark a broader conflict, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warning that Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow. To help address that, Tokyo said in April it would offer military aid to like-minded countries, including radar, which officials said would help the Philippines close defensive gaps.
“It is very useful to give radar to the Philippines because it means we can share information about the Bashi Channel,” said retired Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, referring to the waterway that separates the Philippines and Taiwan. It is considered a bottleneck for ships moving between the western Pacific and the disputed South China Sea.
Three Japanese government officials involved in planning the national security strategy told Reuters that Washington was advising Japan on what to supply because it had a close military relationship with the Philippines. One, however, said the relief effort was a Japanese initiative and not something the United States had pushed for.
The officials declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“We are in the process of selecting equipment that can be used for monitoring and maritime security. We still don’t know what it will be exactly,” a spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said it could not immediately comment on Japan’s security aid or the housing of Japanese troops.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet in Tokyo on Friday with his Japanese and Philippine counterparts Takeo Akiba and Eduardo Ano in the first of a series of regular meetings to discuss security cooperation. security.
LOOSENING THE RULES
The scope of Japanese military aid is limited by a self-imposed ban on exports of lethal equipment.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised in December to review that restriction when he unveiled an unprecedented five-year military buildup that will double defense spending within five years.
Looser export rules are expected in the coming months, but as pressure mounts on industrial economies to help Ukraine, Tokyo has begun testing those restrictions.
After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Japan last month for the Group of Seven leaders’ summit, Kishida donated military trucks and other vehicles. Tokyo has also told the United States that it can buy industrial explosives in Japan for artillery shells destined for Ukraine, and can provide shells to the United States, freeing up supplies for Kiev.
Japan’s military aid to the Philippines “will expand step by step and my hope is that it will change to include lethal weapons” such as anti-ship missiles, said Kawano, who served as head of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Joint Chiefs of Staff for five years until 2019.
Kawano and government officials who spoke to Reuters predicted that Manila could give Japan access to its military bases, as it does the United States, by allowing Japanese SDF planes to patrol the South China Sea. Japan can monitor the waters east of Taiwan from the island of Yonaguni, some 100 kilometers away.
In February, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Kishida agreed in Tokyo that their military would cooperate on disaster relief.
That meeting, in which Kishida also promised Marcos 600 billion yen ($4.3 billion) in development aid and private investment, was preceded in December by the first visit to the Philippines by Japanese fighter jets and a series of meetings high level military. In March, Japan watched military exercises by the United States and the Philippines, and this month its coast guards trained together for the first time.
All of this, experts say, could be a precursor to a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) that would allow both countries to deploy their forces on each other’s soil. If Manila agrees to such a deal, Tokyo has RAAs with Britain and Australia, a pact could be concluded within a year, another of the three Japanese government officials said.
“Since the change of administration, the Philippines has been giving very positive signals, and that could mean a quick deal,” said Yusuke Ishihara, a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies. But he said that Japan and the United States are moving forward carefully in the trilateral talks with the Philippines.
“He is sensitive to his relations with China. The trick will be to reassure the Philippines by discussing economic or economic security issues rather than just defense,” she said.