PHL eyes ‘Balikatan’ with Japan

Manila and Tokyo are eyeing holding large-scale joint military exercises between the Philippine and Japanese armed forces similar to PH-US Balikatan in a bid to improve bilateral defense cooperation as they both expressed “serious concern” on the increasing tension in the South China and East China seas.

This idea cropped up during the first Foreign and Defense Ministerial Dialogue among Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and their Japanese counterparts, Hayashi Yoshimasa and Kishi Nobuo, in Tokyo, Japan Saturday. 

The dialogue came a day after President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke during a teleconference.

During the 2+2 dialogue in Tokyo, the Philippine and Japanese foreign and defense ministers “expressed serious concern” about the East and South China Sea.

Without directly referring to China, the four ministers said they “strongly opposed actions that may increase tensions.” 

Both Japan and China have a common security threat with the growing Chinese maritime presence. The Philippines has a long-running territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, while Japan and China have overlapping claims in Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

Noting the “increasingly severe security environment,” the four ministers have committed to improving their defense capabilities.

“The Ministers concurred to start considering ways to further enhance and facilitate cooperation such as exercises between Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” the joint statement of the four ministers reads.

To operationalize this holding of joint military exercises, both countries will explore having frameworks to facilitate their reciprocal visits and provision of supplies and services in the field of logistical support. Both the Philippines and Japan have their own similar bilateral arrangement with the United States (referred to here as PHL-US Visiting Forces Agreement and Mutual Logistics Support Agreement while in Japan, it’s Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement and Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement ).

“In light of the contribution of a strong US presence to regional stability, the Ministers underscored the importance of each country’s respective treaty alliance with the United States and that of enhancing cooperation with regional partner countries,” the ministers added.

Aside from military exercises, the ministers also wanted more reciprocal port calls or ship visits and the transfer of more defense equipment and technology.

Last year, the Philippines signed a contract to buy fixed, long-range air surveillance radars and a mobile air radar from Japan. Lorenzana and Minister Kishi noted that the transfer process for this radar system is “steady proceeding.”

The Philippines also procured its largest multi-response vessels from Japan, which are now being used by the Philippine Coast Guard in patrolling the West Philippine Sea.

Japan has reiterated its support for the Philippines’ pitch for freedom of navigation in the seas and the use of a rules-based approach in resolving competing maritime claims.

“Japan concurred with the Philippines’ long-standing objections to unlawful maritime claims, militarization, coercive activities and threat or use of force in the South China Sea, and expressed its support for the July 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea. The Philippines emphasized that the arbitral award on the South China Sea is final and legally binding,” the statement read.

Both Manila and Tokyo also called for an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which has been in negotiation for the past 10 years with China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Manila and Tokyo hailed the inaugural 2+2 Talks as a “significant milestone in the 10-year strategic partnership between the Philippines and Japan. 

“The Ministers welcomed the 2+2 as a key instrument for advancing bilateral security and defense cooperation amidst both longstanding and emerging challenges to regional peace and stability,” the joint statement reads. “In light of the increasingly severe security environment, the Ministers emphasized the need to strengthen dialogue between the two countries.”

Secretary Locsin and Secretary Lorenzana also paid a courtesy call on Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Friday, ahead of the 2+2 meeting. 

“The Prime Minister welcomed the two Philippine ministers to Japan and recalled his visits to the Philippines. PM Kishida said that PH-Japan relations enjoy a golden age. He expressed confidence in the success of the inaugural 2+2 meeting,” the DFA said.

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