Japan to strengthen defense ties with Phl

Alexis Romero, Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Japan pledged yesterday to strengthen its strategic defense partnership with the Philippines, particularly on maritime affairs, as both governments expressed concern over China’s robust moves to stake its claims to disputed waters.

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said China’s contentious claim to nearly all of the South China Sea and its territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea were discussed during top-level talks in Manila.

Onodera met with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin at the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

“We agreed that we will further cooperate in terms of the defense of remote islands... the defense of territorial seas as well as protection of maritime interests,” Onodera told a joint news conference.

“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,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Onodera said he learned of the Philippines’ effort to solve the maritime claims against China through legal means by bringing the issue before the United Nations arbitration process.

“I have also learned about the Philippines’ efforts for the United Nations arbitration process in the principle that the Philippine side seeks to solve this problem based on the rule of law. Japan side is totally supporting these kinds of efforts,” he said.

Onodera stressed Japan and the Philippines face the same situation with China.

“I have heard from Secretary Gazmin about the various activities taken by the Philippine armed forces in this matter and I have told him that Japan side will cooperate with Philippine side in this matter,” he said.

Japanese ambassador Toshinao Urabe told The STAR Tokyo supports Manila’s efforts in solving the territorial row with China through peaceful resolution and international arbitration by utilizing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which provides nation-states a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Gazmin welcomed Japan’s offer of support for its poorly resourced 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.

‘Through the rule of law’

Neither side offered specifics but Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in February that the Philippines was expecting to get 10 new Japanese patrol boats within 18 months.

The Japanese military brutally 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,” Onodera said.

Onodera and Gazmin held a meeting to work out a coordinated response towards China’s aggressiveness in laying its maritime claim in the East China and South China seas.

Japan Times reported Onodera is calling on Gazmin to discuss measures aimed at ensuring maritime safety amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

“Onodera plans to discuss with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin the current tensions in the region and to work out a coordinated response toward China,” Japan Times reported.

Upon arrival yesterday at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, Onodera was welcomed by top defense officials led by Undersecretary Honorio Azcueta and Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Lauro Catalino de la Cruz.

Aside from Gazmin, the Japanese defense minister will also be discussing the regional tension with AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista.

The meeting came at a time when Japan and the Philippines are both involved in a mounting maritime dispute with China in the East China and South China seas.

While Japan is trying to protect the Senkaku Islands from continual Chinese maritime intrusions, a standoff is currently progressing over the West Philippine Sea after China’s surveillance vessels took position near Ayungin Shoal.

The shoal is located very close to Palawan and is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

However, just like its claim over the Senkakus, China says 80 percent of the entire South China Sea is an integral part of its maritime domain, including the shoal and nearby waters.

Aside from Philippine territorial waters, China claims most of the South China Sea, including waters close to its neighbors’ coasts. 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 United States for help.

Tensions between China and Japan have also escalated over competing claims to the Japanese-held Senkakus, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus, in the East China Sea.

After his Manila visit, Onodera is scheduled to fly to Hawaii for another round regional security meeting with top US military and security officials.


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