Japan on Thursday vowed to help defend the Philippines which is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Japanese Prime Minister Isunori Onodera said Japan will defend remote islands in the Philippines.
“We agreed that we will further cooperate in terms of defense of remote islands as well as the defense of [our]territory, or territorial sea as well as protection of maritime interest,” Onodera said after a closed-door meeting with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
“We face a very similar situation in the East China Sea of Japan. The Japan side is very concerned that this kind of situation in the South China Sea could affect the situation in the East China Sea,” Onodera said, speaking through an interpreter.
“I have told Secretary Gazmin that Japan totally supports this kind of efforts to resolve this problem,” he said.
Onodera however stressed that like the Philippines, Japan also wants to solve the row with China peacefully and in accordance with international law.
Gazmin welcomed Japan’s offer of support for its poorly resourced Philippine military.
“We have agreed to continue our exchanges of information, exchanges of technology to help each other to make our defense relations stronger,” Gazmin said.
Neither side offered specifics but Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in February his country was expecting to get 10 new Japanese patrol boats within 18 months.
The Japanese military occupied the Philippines during World War II, but the two countries have since grown closer due to trade and investment, and more recently, through China’s assertiveness.
Del Rosario told the Financial Times newspaper in December that a rearmed Japan would help the region counter-balance China.
Onodera and Gazmin also welcomed an increased military presence in Asia by their mutual ally, the United States.
However, Onodera said Japan was intent on avoiding conflict with China.
“I would also like to emphasize here that the current situation should not be changed with the use of force but should be done through the rule of law,” he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to its neighbors’ coasts. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing claims.
The Philippines has complained of increased Chinese “bullying” in the contested waters in recent years, and infuriated China by appealing to allies Japan and the US for help.
The Philippines says China last year occupied an atoll well within the Filipino exclusive economic zone.
Tensions between China and Japan have also escalated over competing claims to the Japanese-held Senkaku islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus, in the East China Sea.
Underscoring the United States commitment to help defend the Philippines against an intruder, a US destroyer joined the Philippine Navy’s flagship for war games that started Thursday close to a flashpoint area of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The exercises added to tensions with China over rival territorial claims.
“The goal of these exercises is to further boost cooperation… between the two armed forces and further streamline responses to counter-terrorism and maritime security,” deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte told Agence France-Presse.
The six-day exercises are an annual event but this year, they were planned for the west coast of Luzon, close to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal which China insists it owns.
The shoal is a tiny set of rocks and islets east of Luzon.
The Philippines says China has effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground, for more than a year.
Manila says Chinese vessels now constantly patrol the waters around the shoal, forcing Filipino fishermen who have sailed there for generations to stay away.
Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Gregory Fabic stressed the war games were not meant to provoke China.
“While the exercises will be between Scarborough Shoal and the main island of Luzon, the focus is inter-operability and not targeted against the Chinese,” Fabic told AFP.
Gazmin said the government was looking at more “high value, high impact” exercises with the US.
Onodera and Gazmin agreed an increased US military presence in the region would serve to blunt China’s influence.
“Both sides agreed that the US presence is (a) very important public asset in East Asia,” Onodera said.
The Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat) exercises will involve three US Navy vessels, including the USS Fitzgerald, a guided missile destroyer, according to a Philippine Navy statement.
The Philippines will deploy its flagship, a former US coastguard cutter Gregorio del Pilar, as well as other navy and coastguard vessels.
About 500 US forces and another 500 Filipino troops will take part in the exercises, according to Fabic.
He said among the highlights was an exercise designed to intercept suspected enemy ships, board them and seize materials they may be carrying that could pose a danger to allies.
There will also be simulated counter-terrorism exercises, as well as training in disaster response and increasing proficiency in naval gunnery, he added.
The Chinese embassy in Manila released a statement on Thursday cautioning the Philippines and the US not to exacerbate tensions in the area with its exercises.
“We hope relevant sides should take actions that are beneficial for maintaining peace and stability in the region, not the other way around,” the statement said, citing a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing.