TOKYO: President Benigno Aquino 3rd on Tuesday began a four-day visit to Japan that will see him court investment and seek support for his opposition to China’s land reclamations in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Aquino boarded Philippine Airlines Flight 001 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 shortly after 10 a.m. and arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport at 3:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. in Manila).
He is to deliver a speech in the Diet–Japan’s parliament–on Wednesday, in which he is expected to focus on Beijing’s construction of runways and other infrastructure on reclaimed islands, which has aggravated regional tensions and drawn US demands to stop.
The Filipino leader’s visit to Tokyo comes less than a month after the two countries held their first joint military drill in modern history — despite Japan’s role as occupier of much of Asia during World War II.
Aquino’s schedule also includes a meeting with Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also on Wednesday and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, after speaking at an investment forum designed to lure potential business deals.
But politics will top the agenda.
Beijing ramped up its land reclamations in the South China Sea at a dramatic pace in recent months, constructing man-made islands on top of reefs across a wide area to back up its territorial claims.
China insists it has a right to control nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters near the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian neighbors, which have competing claims to parts of the waters.
The US has pressed Japan to help its efforts to send military planes and vessels to survey the sea to maintain the right to free navigation.
In his departure speech, Aquino said the Philippines has proven to be not just a recipient of foreign aid, but an able player in the resolution of regional challenges.
“Napatunayan natin ang ating relasyon sa ibang bansa ay hindi na lamang para tumanggap ng kanilang kabaitan: Handa na rin tayong tumulong sa paglutas ng mga hamong hinaharap at haharapin ng ating rehiyon [We have proven that our relationship with other countries is not just limited to being the recipient of their kindness: We are ready to help resolve the challenges faced by our region],” he added.
The President noted that that in the 59 years of bilateral relations, Japan has given assistance and support to the Philippines way beyond its “obligation”–from being one of the first boots on the ground in the aftermath of super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) to maintaining regional security and finding peace in Mindanao.
“Kasama din natin sila sa paninindigang ang rule of law ang dapat mamayani upang makamit ang patas at makatwirang resolusyon sa usapin ng teritoryo [We are together in saying that the rule of law should prevail to achieve a fair and reasonable resolution to our territorial issues],” Aquino said.
The Philippine government said his state visit to Japan “is taking place at an auspicious and important juncture” of the two countries’ bilateral ties heading into its sixth decade next year.
The Philippines describes its relations with Japan as being at “their most dynamic and excellent levels.”
Also in his speech, Aquino said he was honored to receive the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, Japan’s prestigious award.
He added that the recognition was not for his individual achievement but for the collective work of Filipinos to achieving peace, development and democracy.
In exchange, Aquino said he would confer on His Majesty Emperor Akihito the Order of Lakandula with Rank of Supremo and the Order of Sikatuna with Rank of Raja on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their “distinct contribution in strengthening and advancing Japan-Philippines relations.”
“Ang palitan ng parangal na ito ay sagisag din ng lalo pang tumitibay na pagkakaibigan sa pagitan ng ating mga bansa at mamamayan [This exchange of honors also symbolizes the stronger friendship between our countries and people],” he added.
Philippine Ambassador to Tokyo Manuel Lopez said the President would witness the signing of a contract to transfer 10 patrol boats for the Philippine Coast Guard during his visit.
The Philippines and Japan’s exchange of equipment and military knowledge are taking place amid China’s reclamation activities in the disputed areas in the South China Sea.
The agreement will be signed by Japan Marine United Corp. and the Department of Transportation of Communications (DOTC), which oversees the Coast Guard.
Lopez said the new patrol boats would be “used for monitoring the country’s coastlines and for disaster response and relief.” The patrol boats will be turned over through an official development assistance facility,
The President will also visit the nine Filipino cadets who are part of the exchange program between Japan’s National Defense Academy and the Philippine Military Academy.
Cost of visit
Aquino’s four-day state visit to Japan will cost the government P34.6 million, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. said.
The amount will be used for Aquino and his delegation’s expenses for “transportation, accommodation, food, equipment and other requirements.”
Composing the President’s official entourage are: Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan.
Also part of the Philippine delegation are Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, Presidential Management Staff chief Julia Andrea Abad, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Laura del Rosario, and protocol chief Celia Anna Feria.
A commentary released by China’s state news agency criticized the visit and called Aquino as “probably the most frequent visitor among all foreign leaders Tokyo has received”.
“His Japan tour… marks the sixth since he took office five years ago,” the opinion piece said.
“The unrivaled travel frequency is indeed conspicuous against Manila’s growing appetite for a more assertive role regarding the South China Sea.”
Xinhua particularly took exception to the transfer of military equipment, which is said was meant to boost the capabilities of the Philippine armed forces against a “perceived enemy.”
WITH BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON AND AFP