MANILA and Tokyo are poised to begin discussions on the forging of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that would allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces access to Philippine military bases and installations amid growing tensions over China’s aggressive artificial island building works in the West Philippine Sea.
“Yes, the Philippines does welcome this development and we will be initiating all of the diplomatic requirements to come up with a Visiting Forces Agreement,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd said in an interview with the members of the Japan National Press Club.
“The Visiting Forces Agreement will have to be passed and approved by our Senate, but we will be starting discussions on all of the details embodied in this,” he added.
The announcement came after Aquino and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed the Joint Declaration of Strategic Partnership as the framework for an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology and expansion of bilateral and multilateral trainings among others.
The two countries had stepped up maritime cooperation in recent years in response to China’s growing aggression in disputed areas in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
According to Aquino, a VFA with Japan will improve inter-operability and cooperation between the armed forces of the two former World War II foes.
“It does not behoove a good partnership or relationship if you are not able to work at interoperability with the other,” the President said.
“An agreement that even for humanitarian concerns that exists only on paper will not be effective when there comes a time that you would need to be in coordination, and in cooperation, or in joint cooperation with your strategic partners,” he added.
The Philippines has signed VFAs with the United States and Australia, whose troops regularly come to the Philippines for military exercises, among other activities.
Japan and the Philippines also recently held naval drills in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines has an ongoing maritime dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea, while Japan is locked in a dispute over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
Aquino and Abe on Wednesday signed a joint declaration on strengthening the strategic partnership between the two countries.
The Philippine President said the agreement involves a “request for the transfer of equipment” to the Philippines from Japan.
“We need maritime domain awareness. We have a 36,000-kilometer coastline. We want to know what’s happening in our waters,” Aquino told reporters in a separate briefing Wednesday night.
He, however, said discussing what specific equipment will be transferred to the Philippines would be “premature.”
The President added that Japan will still have to “reexamine the interpretation” of its Constitution if such transfer of equipment would be allowed.
Japan’s Constitution renounces war and “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”
In separate speeches during his four-day state visit, Aquino criticized China’s assertiveness and its “unlawful territorial claim.”
He urged Beijing to reexamine its reclamation efforts as he again compared the Asian giant’s aggression to Nazi Germany’s expansionist moves in the second world war.
The President shrugged off criticisms against him by the Chinese, saying the adverse reaction was “expected.”
During an interview with reporters in Japan, Aquino sounded far from being apologetic and even cited a particular instance when China violated a previous international agreement that it signed.
“I guess it’s to be expected. That has been their common line,” said the President in reaction to China’s expression of “shock” and “dissatisfaction” over the comparison with the Nazis who were led by Adolf Hitler.
“I may refer you to the fifth paragraph of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea to which they are a signatory. I assume both of us have read it, and both of us are aware of our commitments toward each other. And I submit the portion, specifically, about changing the features is specific to all of these reclamation efforts,” Aquino explained.
“So, if they signed it in good faith, is it wrong for us to ask them to adhere to that which they agreed to in 2002?” he pointed out.
The DOC is a precursor of the long sought Code of Conduct in the Spratlys that will set the guidelines for the use of seaplanes and resources in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The code, however, remains in the doldrums although members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have been actively pushing for it.
But in the same interview, Aquino noted that Chinese leaders are “pragmatic people” who usually listen to the clamor of their counterparts around the world.
“Therefore, hopefully, they will take all of these in a reasonable manner and re-examine their actions,” he said.
Aquino cited the support of the United States, the Asean, G7 nations and the European Union to the position of the Philippines on issues on the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, heo admitted that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US military will make Oyster and Ulugan bays in Palawan province accessible to American troops to beef up the Philippines’ naval defenses in the west.