The Japanese government signed an agreement with the Philippines that would allow it to sell a variety of military equipment to Manila, potentially starting with advanced aircraft that can be used for surveillance missions.
The move comes as the Philippines increases pressure on China to cease its militarization operations in Philippines parts of the South China Sea, particularly the Spratly Islands.
The agreement is the first of its kind between Japan and a southeast Asian nation, the Associated Press notes, and may be the first of many should it benefit nations concerned that China is imposing itself on territory five other nations dispute as their own. China has claimed most of the South China Sea, including territory claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. The Philippines in particular claims multiple islands in the Spratly Archipelago, where for the past two years, China has been constructing artificial islands and military facilities.
China has increased its presence in the region. Satellite evidence indicates Beijing has begun construction on an advanced radar system in the Spratly Islands and placed surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Island chain, claimed in part by both the Philippines and Vietnam. Despite recent tensions, however, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has denied that the new arms deal with Japan has anything to do with them.
“It’s not directed against any country,” he said on Saturday, when Monday’s signing of the agreement was announced. Instead, the deal was about “really substantiat[ing] the Philippines and Japan being strategic partners,” he said. “Let me stress that what underpins this agreement is not only our desire to enhance our respective defense capabilities but also to contribute to regional peace and stability,” he added.
The Philippine Star reports that aircraft may be the first order of business for Manila to purchase. “Japan is offering a surveillance aircraft at the moment, but nothing is final,” Gazmin said at the announcement of the deal, attended also by Japanese Ambassador Kazuhide Ishikawa. The aircraft in question, Japan’s Nikkei review suggests, may be “up to five TC-90 planes from its fleet of 18. The aircraft, which is not equipped with radar and other such equipment, is currently used for training purposes at the MSDF’s Tokushima air base in southern Japan.” The aircraft would greatly expand the Philippines’ surveillance ability, allowing Manila to pose a greater challenge to Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Yomiuri Shimbun Japanese newspaper reports that the Philippines is, in fact, intending to use the aircraft for just that. “It’s difficult to patrol over all the area of the Spratly Islands where China has been expanding and then return to the Philippines,” a Philippine government sources tells the newspaper, noting that the planes in question will be used in the region.
In addition to the aircraft, Japan is set to offer the Philippines ten new Coast Guard patrol boats. The deal is the third of its kind for Japan, which also has similar agreements with the United States and Australia.
The Philippines has escalated pressure of China to access a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to determine which country truly has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. “As we presume to be responsible states, the Philippines, as well as the international community, are asking China to respect the forthcoming ruling of the arbitral tribunal and together advance an international rules-based regime,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Monday. “If China does not heed our collective call, does it mean that China considers itself above the law?”
The Chinese government has denied that it would respect any ruling from The Hague, claiming that the region in question has belonged to China “since ancient times” and the matter is not up for dispute. It has dismissed the Philippine case as “political provocation” intended to disrupt China’s foreign policy.