TOKYO, June 16 (Reuters) – Japan is preparing military aid to the Philippines to deepen security ties, secure sea approaches and secure the western part of Taiwan, which could bring Japanese forces back there for the first time since World War II.
Retreating from decades of pacifism, Tokyo worries the Philippines is a weak link in an island chain stretching from the Japanese archipelago to Indonesia through which ships must pass to or from the Pacific Ocean.
Chief among the Japanese military’s worries is a Chinese attack on neighboring Taiwan, which could trigger a wider conflict, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warning today that Ukraine could be East Asia tomorrow. To address that, Tokyo in April said it would offer military aid to like-minded countries, including radars, which officials said would help the Philippines plug defense gaps.
„Providing radars to the Philippines is very useful because we can share information about the Bashi Channel,” said retired Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, referring to the waterway that separates the Philippines and Taiwan. It is considered a choke point for ships plying between the Western Pacific and the South China Sea.
Three Japanese government officials involved in national security strategic planning told Reuters that Washington has a close military relationship with the Philippines and advises Japan on what to offer. However, one said the aid effort was a Japanese initiative and nothing the US insisted on.
Officials declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
„We are in the process of selecting equipment that can be used for maritime surveillance and security. We do not yet know what that will be,” said a spokesman for Japan’s foreign ministry.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said it could not immediately comment on Japan’s security assistance or Japanese troops.
US President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan on Friday met Japan and Philippines’ Takeo Akiba and Eduardo Ano in Tokyo.
The three „discussed various regional security challenges, including the South China Sea and East China Sea and North Korea,” a joint news release said. „Also, they reiterated the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Relaxation of rules
The scope of Japanese military assistance is limited by a self-imposed ban on dangerous equipment exports.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised to review that restraint in December when he unveiled an unprecedented five-year military framework that would 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 is beginning to test those restrictions.
After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Japan for the G7 summit last month, Kishida donated military trucks and other vehicles. Tokyo has told the United States it can buy industrial ammunition in Japan for artillery shells destined for Ukraine.
Kawano, who served as head of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), said that Japan’s military aid to the Philippines „will gradually expand and become more inclusive of lethal weapons such as anti-ship missiles.” Joint Staff for five years till 2019.
Kawano and government officials who spoke to Reuters predicted that Manila could offer Japan access to its military bases, which it has with the United States, allowing Japanese SDF aircraft to patrol the South China Sea. Japan can monitor waters about 100 kilometers from Yonakuni Island, east of Taiwan.
In February, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Kishita agreed in Tokyo that their militaries would cooperate in disaster relief.
At that meeting, Kishida pledged 600 billion yen ($4.3 billion) in development aid and private investment to Marcos, capped by a December visit to the Philippines by Japanese warplanes and a series of high-level military meetings. Japan observed US-Philippines military exercises in March, and this month their coast guards trained together for the first time.
All of this could be a precursor to a Mutual Access Agreement (RAA) that would allow both countries to station their forces on each other’s soil. Another of the three Japanese government officials said that if Manila were to accept such an agreement – Tokyo has RAAs with Britain and Australia – a deal could be finalized within a year.
„Since the change in administration, the Philippines has been giving very positive signals that could indicate a speedy agreement,” said Yusuke Ishihara, a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies. But, he said, Japan and the US are being cautious in the trilateral talks with the Philippines.
„It is sensitive about its relations with China. It would be tricky to ease the Philippines by discussing the economy or economic security,” he said.
Reporting by Tim Kelly, Sakura Murakami and Yukiko Toyoda in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Manila. Editing by Gerry Doyle
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