First island chain strategy: Japan-Philippines security relationship deepens

While Japanese PM Kishida’s recent visit to Manila points to the upward momentum of the Japan-Philippines Strategic Partnership, it will also be a litmus test of Japan’s strategic goals in the rest of Southeast Asia.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with Philippine President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr after their joint statement at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, on 3 November 2023. (Aaron Favila/Reuters)
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with Philippine President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr after their joint statement at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, on 3 November 2023. (Aaron Favila/Reuters)

On 3-4 November 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida paid an official visit to the Philippines and held talks with President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. The two sides reaffirmed their strategic partnership and commitment to the rules-based international order.

As a testament to the close diplomatic relations between the two countries, Kishida addressed a special joint session of the Philippine Congress — a first for a Japanese leader. Among the key outcomes of the visit is the signing of the Official Security Assistance (OSA) grant aid for a coastal radar system “which will improve the Philippine navy’s maritime domain awareness capabilities”. Manila is the first beneficiary of Tokyo’s OSA framework since its establishment under Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS).

Ensuring continuity in the balance of power

Japan’s foreign policy initiatives in the Philippines — and in Southeast Asia — are embedded in Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategyFirst advanced by the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and updated under Kishida, Japan’s FOIP vision has four pillars: upholding principles for peace and rules for prosperity; addressing challenges of the global commons such as the environment, cyberspace and public health; strengthening multi-layered connectivity; and extending efforts for security and safe use of the air and sea. 

From Japan’s perspective, the “balance of power is shifting dramatically” in today’s security environment. In its 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS), Tokyo observed that China “continues to advance its unilateral changes to the status quo by force and such attempts in the East China Sea and the South China Sea (SCS)”. Japan underscored the likelihood of extreme events that could undermine regional peace and stability.

Japan is concerned that Beijing will be in a position to alter the balance of power in the first island chain (encompassing Japan, Taiwan, portions of the Philippines, and Indonesia).

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Japan Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Shohei Ishii (left) and Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan (right) visit the BRP Teresa Magbanua ship at the Philippine Coast Guard headquarters on 4 November 2023 in Manila, Philippines. (Ezra Acayan/AFP)

Southeast Asia is a theatre for great power competition. As a maritime country, Japan has two intertwined strategic interests in the region. First, that peace and stability are preserved in the SCS to prevent the disruption of trade and to keep the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) open; and second, that international legal norms are upheld.

If China succeeds in its maritime expansionism in Southeast Asia, Japan is concerned that Beijing will be in a position to alter the balance of power in the first island chain (encompassing Japan, Taiwan, portions of the Philippines, and Indonesia). It is not surprising that Japan’s successive strategic overtures in Southeast Asia start first in the Philippines, and then gradually extend to the rest of Southeast Asia.

The proposed RAA [Reciprocal Access Agreement] will improve military interoperability and provide the legal basis for Japan’s potential participation in Philippines-US military exercises.

Tokyo has provided the Philippine Coast Guard with new vessels and donated aircraft to the Philippine Navy. Apart from the OSA grant, Japan is negotiating a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) with the Philippines. Like a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the RAA will provide a legal framework for foreign armed forces to temporarily visit the Philippines for military exercises and operations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

At the moment, Manila has such arrangements only with Washington and Canberra — the latter, like Tokyo, is a US ally and a strategic partner of the Philippines. Should this agreement materialise, it will be Japan’s first RAA with a Southeast Asian country. The proposed RAA will improve military interoperability and provide the legal basis for Japan’s potential participation in Philippines-US military exercises.

Shared strategic interest in peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific

There are indications that Japan’s security initiatives with the Philippines will be sustained. Both countries are concerned about the intensification of great power competition in the region and China’s assertive actions in the maritime domain. Both have territorial and maritime disputes with China, in the SCS and the East China Sea respectively. As archipelagic countries, Japan and the Philippines have a shared strategic interest in peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, currently rife with multiple flashpoints that include the Taiwan Strait.

For Japan, legal constraints, despite the reinterpretation of the country’s constitution, and Kishida’s low popularity could derail plans for enhanced security cooperation.

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Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida poses at the House of Representatives in Quezon City, Philippines, on 4 November 2023. (Aaron Favila/Reuters)

What would make security cooperation smoother between the two countries is Japan’s credible record of providing development assistance and other socioeconomic aid to the Philippines for decades. At the moment, some of the major infrastructure megaprojects under Marcos Jr’s Build Better More (BBM) scheme are funded by Japan. The government’s recent decision to terminate three major railway projects under the ambit of China’s Belt and Road Initiative opens the possibility for Japan to be a replacement investor.

Admittedly, there are still challenges facing any strengthening of the Japan-Philippines strategic partnership. For Japan, legal constraints, despite the reinterpretation of the country’s constitution, and Kishida’s low popularity could derail plans for enhanced security cooperation. In the Philippines, infighting among political factions within the Marcos Jr-Sara Duterte alliance could distract legislators from ratifying the RAA. Civil society groups have also revived memories of Japanese wartime atrocities, including the Filipina comfort women issue.

Nevertheless, in his address to the Philippine Congress, Prime Minister Kishida declared that  Philippines-Japan relations have reached a “golden age”, a term used by former Philippine President Duterte to describe the bilateral strategic partnership during his presidency. With sustained commitment and focus, the Philippines and Japan might be able to overcome obstacles to address their shared geopolitical challenges in this “golden age”. Securing a deeper Philippines-Japan strategic partnership could potentially translate into a greater security role for Japan in Southeast Asia.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

Related: Closer trilateral US-Japan-Philippines ties to protect security interests against China | Is Philippine President Marcos Jr swinging too far back to the US? | The US-Japan-Philippines triad: Part of the US's trilateral security networks around China