TOKYO – Japan and the Philippines on Tuesday agreed to strengthen links between their navies against a backdrop of Beijing’s growing military might and increasingly assertive territorial claims in the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in Tokyo with the pair reaffirming their “vital” interests in the disputed South China Sea, which Manila recently renamed the West Philippine Sea.
“The two leaders confirmed that the South China Sea is vital, as it connects the world and the Asia Pacific region, and that peace and stability therein is of common interest to the international community,” said a signed Japan-Philippines Joint Statement issued after the summit.
“Freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce, and compliance with established international law… and the peaceful settlement of disputes serve the interest of the two countries and the whole region,” the statement said.
The agreement, signed by Tokyo and Manila, which did not mention China by name, was the latest move by countries who are becoming ever more wary of Beijing’s reach.
Specifically, the two countries agreed “to enhance the cooperation and coordination between their maritime safety authorities,” including the dispatch of Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels to train their Philippine counterparts.
They also agreed to have more frequent exchanges of military and political personnel, including “reciprocal visits between the Chief of Staff of Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces and the Flag Officer of the Philippine Navy.”
Speaking after the summit, Noda told reporters the two countries shared “basic values and a strategic interest”.
Aquino, who committed himself to “peaceful dialogue” with Beijing during a visit to the Chinese capital earlier this month, said Japan and the Philippines had an interest in “cooporating on maritime security issues.”
“I conveyed the Philippines’ appreciation for Japan’s capacity building assistance for the Philippine Coast Guard in terms of training and equipment, which boosts its ability to watch over our extent of coastlines in internal waters,” he said.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to all or parts of the sea, including hundreds of islets and reefs mostly located in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.
The sea is believed to be extremely rich in oil and gas deposits, as well as being home to shipping lanes linking East Asia with Europe and the Middle East that are vital to global trade.
The US — a key security ally of both Manila and Tokyo — has on a number of occasions claimed a “national interest” in the South China Sea, a line that angers Beijing, which, say observers, considers the area its back yard.
A long-standing territorial row between Tokyo and Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea is also a headache for Noda, who took power earlier this month.
The two countries came to diplomatic blows late last year when a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese coastguard ship in waters near uninhabited islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The trawler captain was arrested and held for several weeks in Japan before Tokyo climbed down, but not before relations had been sent into deep freeze.
In August, China launched its first aircraft carrier, with tests that sparked international concern over the country’s growing naval reach. Its rocketing military budget has provoked claims of “opaqueness” from Tokyo, while the US has called on Beijing to explain why it needs the aircraft carrier.
Aquino, who arrived in Japan on Sunday, travelled to the disaster-hit northeastern region the following day, including Ishinomaki, one of the cities hardest-hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
He plans to meet Emperor Akihito on Wednesday before wrapping up his four-day visit.