Japan hopes to bolster the Philippines’ defense amid fears of a Taiwan conflict

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is preparing military aid for the Philippines to help secure naval approaches and protect Taiwan’s western flank, officials said, deepening security ties that could bring Japanese forces back there for the first time since World War Two.

As it backtracks on decades of peace, Tokyo worries that the Philippines is a weak link in a chain of islands stretching from the Japanese archipelago to Indonesia that ships must pass through heading to or from the Pacific.

At the top of the Japanese military’s concerns is a Chinese attack on neighboring Taiwan which could spark a broader conflict, with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warning that Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow. To help address this, Tokyo said in April it would offer to like-minded nations including the radars, which officials said would help the Philippines close defense gaps.

“It is very useful to give the radars to the Philippines because it means we can share information about the Bashi Channel,” said retired Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, referring to the waterway separating the Philippines and Taiwan. It is a choke point for ships moving between the western Pacific Ocean and the disputed South China Sea.

Three Japanese government officials involved in planning the national security strategy told Reuters that Washington is advising Japan on what to offer because it has a close military relationship with the Philippines. However, one of them said that the aid effort was a Japanese initiative and not something the United States had pressured.

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The officials declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“We are in the process of selecting equipment that can be used for maritime surveillance and security. We don’t know yet what exactly that will be,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

The Philippine Foreign Ministry said it was not immediately able to comment on security assistance from Japan or hosting Japanese troops.

US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, met on Friday with his counterparts from Japan and the Philippines, Takeo Akiba and Eduardo Ano, in Tokyo, in the first of a series of regular meetings to discuss security cooperation.

A joint press release stated that the three “discussed a wide range of regional security challenges, including those relating to the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as North Korea.” In addition, they reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.

Dismantle the rules

The scope of Japanese military aid is limited by a self-imposed ban on exports of lethal equipment.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised in December to review that restriction when he unveiled an unprecedented five-year military buildup that would double defense spending in five years.

Tighter export rules are expected in the coming months, but as pressure mounts on industrialized economies to help Ukraine, Tokyo has begun to test those restrictions.

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Japan last month for the G7 summit, Kishida donated military trucks and other vehicles. Tokyo also informed the United States that it could purchase industrial explosives in Japan for artillery shells aimed at Ukraine.

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Kawano, who served as commander of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), said that Japan’s military aid to the Philippines “will expand step by step, and I hope it will change to include lethal weapons” such as anti-ship missiles. Joint Chiefs of Staff for five years through 2019.

Kawano and the government officials who spoke to Reuters speculated that Manila could give Japan access to its military bases, as it does for the United States, allowing Japanese SDF planes to patrol the South China Sea. Japan can observe the waters east of Taiwan from Yonaguni Island, about 100 kilometers away.

In February, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Kishida agreed in Tokyo that their militaries would cooperate on disaster relief.

That meeting, at which Kishida Marcos also promised 600 billion yen ($4.3 billion) in development aid and private investment, was preceded in December by the first-ever visit of Japanese fighter jets to the Philippines and a series of high-level military meetings. In March, Japan observed military exercises between the United States and the Philippines, and this month the coast guards trained together for the first time.

All of this, experts say, could be a precursor to a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) that would allow both countries to station their forces on each other’s soil. Another of three Japanese government officials said that if Manila accepts such an agreement — Tokyo has treaty agreements with Britain and Australia — an agreement could be concluded within a year.

“Since the change in administration, the Philippines has been giving very positive signals, and that could mean a quick agreement,” said Yosuke Ishihara, a senior fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies. But he said Japan and the United States are treading carefully in the trilateral talks with the Philippines.

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“It is sensitive about its relations with China. The trick would be to appease the Philippines by discussing economic issues or economic security rather than just defense,” he said.

Additional reporting by Tim Kelly, Sakura Murakami and Yukiko Toyoda in Tokyo; Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Manila. Editing by Jerry Doyle

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