News Commentary

Abe: The patron of Philippine-Japan security partnership

Renato Cruz De Castro - Philstar.com
Abe: The patron of Philippine-Japan security partnership
In this file photo taken on April 21, 2015 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves as he leaves to Indonesia at the Tokyo International Airport in Tokyo. Abe has been confirmed dead after he was shot at a campaign event in the city of Nara on July 8, 2022, public broadcaster NHK and Jiji news agency reported.
AFP/Jiji Press

On March 20, 2021, former Department of National Défense (DND) Secretary Lorenzana warned the Filipino nation about the presence of around 220-blue hulled Chinese fishing vessels moored in line formation at Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef. According to him, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) sighted the fishing vessels as early as March 7; these were allegedly manned by the Chinese maritime militia.

Filipino military officers and diplomats immediately interpreted the gathering of Chinese fishing vessels as a prelude to a grey zone operation, similar to what happened in Mischief Reef in 1996, and again in Scarborough Shoal in 2012.  

Then-Secretary Lorenzana ordered the PCG and Philippine Navy (PN) to increase their sovereignty patrols near Whitsun Reef. The PN’s Japanese-supplied TC90 planes made several aerial reconnaissance flights over Chinese-controlled land features despite being challenged by the People Liberation Army’s Navy’s (PLAN) forces. 

The PCG activated its “Task Force Pagsasanay (Training)” to protect the Philippines’ EEZ amid the tense and critical stand-off. The task force was composed of officers and crew of the PCG’s newly acquired Japanese-made Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRVs). The number of PCG and naval vessels increased from three to 13 ships that conducted approximately 57 patrols around the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoals. 

Nevertheless, their deployment and more frequent patrols conveyed a powerful message. The PCG and the PN were able to actively establish their presence during the stand-off, alongside Japanese-made TC-90 reconnaissance planes and MRVVs that were provided to the Philippines by Japan. They were provided to the PCG and PN during the term of the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the patron of the Philippine-Japan security partnership.

The patron of the Philippine-Japan Security partnership  

Prior to November 2012, Tokyo and Manila saw little need for a security cooperation agreement. Both countries were wary that Beijing might misconstrue any security arrangement as an anti-Chinese alliance. This thinking, however, changed when the two countries were confronted by China’s aggressive expansionism in the South and East China Seas in the second decade of the 21st century, and when the late Prime Minister Abe returned to power. 

A few weeks after his return to power in December 2012, Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe sent Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on a four-country Asia/Pacific diplomatic tour to convey Japan’s growing concern over Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. In Manila, Minister Kishida and then Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario agreed to closely work together in pursuit of maritime security.

In December 2013, the late President Benigno Aquino discussed with PM Abe in Tokyo China’s establishment of an Air Défense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. In June 2014, former President Aquino and PM Abe met again in Tokyo and tackled China’s maritime ambition in East Asia. Areas of possible cooperation were explored to enhance the recently forged Philippines-Japan Strategic Partnership.  

During President Aquino’s state visit to Japan in early June 2015, the two leaders then issued a joint declaration on “A Strengthened Strategic Partnership for Advancing the Shared Principles and Goals for Peace, Security, and Growth in the Region and Beyond.” The strategic partnership is founded [on the basis] of shared principles and goals.  

Preventing the pivot to China 

Former President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s efforts to wean the Philippines away from its traditional ally, the US, and pivot the country closer to China worried Japan. This directional change surely steers a traditional stalwart American ally toward becoming an economic satellite of China. 

PM Abe was concerned that the prospects of forming a common association with the Philippines that adheres to a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation, and the support for America`s role as East Asia`s strategic off-shore balancer would be thwarted by then-President Duterte`s increasingly independent foreign and strategic posture vis-à-vis the U.S. and its other Asian allies. 

He harnessed all Japanese foreign policy instruments—military, economic, diplomatic, etc.—to balance President Duterte`s policy of weaning away from the US while leaning on to China. Amid the pivot to China and the straining Manila’s relations with the US, PM Abe met with President Duterte on several occasions where the two leaders pledged to deepen their maritime security cooperation and help resolve the South China Sea dispute peacefully. 

Following the end of the battle of Marawi City, Japan installed PCG radar stations on the islands in the Sulu and Celebes Seas to monitor the movement of terrorist groups transiting between Indonesia and Mindanao. Japan`s provision of four radar stations is part of a substantial ODA package. 

For Japan, the Philippines is a key factor in preventing China’s political and diplomatic stranglehold from spreading into the Western Pacific. The late Prime Minister Abe saw the importance of the Philippines as a geopolitical bulwark against Chinese maritime expansion as he fostered the Philippine-Japan security partnership. 

Honoring maritime security and cooperation

On July 12, the Stratbase Institute marked the 6th anniversary of the Philippine arbitral victory and hosted the international conference “Redefining Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in an Age of Uncertainty.”

As the diplomatic community, government officials, scholars, and regional and global security exports traded their ideas and arguments on maritime security, Dr. Yusuke Takagi (Associate Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies) talked about the strengthened bilateral cooperation between the Philippines and Japan in terms of maritime security and safety. Specifically, he elaborated on the pillars of the concept of “Free and Open Indo Pacific” (FOIP), namely, the rule of law, and freedom of navigation and trade; economic prosperity; and peace and stability.  

In the closing remarks of Prof. Dindo Manhit, President of the Institute, he emphasized the universality of the United Nations Convention of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS), the significance of regional cooperation, and the perpetual relevance of the 2016 ruling and the rule of law. According to him, defending our rights in the West Philippine Sea is the anchor and motor force that the new government must embark upon to promote a pro-Filipino and strategic foreign policy. 


Renato Cruz De Castro is trustee and program convenor of think tank Stratbase Institute.


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