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Japan and the Philippines: Towards a Stronger Strategic Partnership

Mr Sriram Vellore is a Research Intern at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • December 06, 2023

    The National Security Strategy (NSS) 2022 highlighted Japan’s aim to establish a new cooperation framework that would provide equipment and assistance for infrastructure development to like-minded countries. As part of this aim, the ‘Official Security Assistance’ (OSA) framework was introduced.

    The OSA is a new cooperation framework to reinforce the armed forces of like-minded countries in order to deepen security cooperation with Japan’s defence forces. While the Official Development Assistance (ODA) focuses on enhancing the social and economic development of developing countries, the OSA intends to expand bilateral defence cooperation to tackle common security challenges.1  

    On 3 November, the Philippines became the first recipients of the OSA and also became the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member to sign a defence pact with Japan. The National Security Policy (NSP) 2023–28 of the Philippines highlights that the West Philippine Sea (WPS)/South China Sea (SCS) issue remains a key priority for Manila. It also elaborates on acquiring state-of-the-art military assets to become a self-reliant military power.2

    The institutionalisation of Japan’s security ties with Manila is a testament to the fact that Japan has gained the Philippines’ trust to act as a security partner despite its tainted past during the Second World War.3 Due to the significant convergence of security interests, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) region, Japan and the Philippines are now closer than ever in security terms. 

    On 22 October 2023, a Chinese coastguard vessel bumped into a Philippine coastguard vessel during a resupply mission near the Second Thomas Shoal in the SCS. This incident was the most consequential of all the maritime confrontations between the Philippines and China that began in the 1990s. Following the severe maritime confrontation in October, the Philippine Transportation Secretary declared the revocation of Chinese infrastructure projects valued at US$ 4.9 billion and Manila signed the OSA pact with Tokyo.4

    The new defence agreement marked a shift in Japan’s previous policy which restricted the use of development aid to disaster relief. Tokyo is to offer a grant valued at Y600 million (US$ 4 million) under the scheme, along with defence equipment such as warning and control radars.5 Shortly after inking the pact with Japan, the Philippines declared its exit from the Belt and Road Initiative. This is another major step taken by Manila to alleviate its economic dependence on Beijing and lean more towards its security allies, namely Tokyo and Washington.

    Japan–Philippine Relations: Brief Overview

    During the Second World War, the Philippines was one of the countries that Japan targeted in its military occupation of the Southeast Asian region. It was a vital part of Japanese territorial ambitions, particularly since it was a US colony. After the war ended, Manila aimed to establish good relations with Tokyo, contrary to the approach of other neighbouring countries that bore the brunt of Japan’s military occupation.

    In the early years of their relationship, the Philippines approached Japan with caution fearing military expansion. However, Washington’s push to improve relations and Tokyo’s willingness to pay war reparations led the two countries to conclude the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation in 1960. Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo’s introduction of “heart-to-heart diplomacy” in 1977 brought Japan closer to Southeast Asian countries.6

    The two countries have explored maritime safety and security since the 1990s. On 4 June 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Benigno Aquino III jointly declared that the relationship has entered the stage of a “Strengthened Strategic Partnership”. The declaration focused on enhancing security dialogues and concluding negotiations on the transfer of defence equipment, along with other pertinent security issues.7  

    The Philippines also benefitted substantially from the ODA provided by Japan. The ODA loan to Manila rose from US$ 2304.77 million in the period 1985–1990 to US$ 2593.61 million in the period 2010–2017.8 In 2022, Japan offered an ODA loan of 30,000 million yen to the Philippines for the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan.9

    Growth of Security Relations

    Philippine–China relations have regressed gradually over China’s maritime confrontations with the Philippines in the South China Sea since the mid-1990s. In 1995, Manila’s perception of its relations with China changed considerably when it discovered the Chinese construction on the Mischief Reef. Prior to the development in 1995, relations were marked by detente and economic cooperation, devoid of any confrontation. The detention of a Filipino fishing vessel by Chinese troops on Mischief Reef aggravated President Fidel Ramos, who condemned Chinese activities in the South China Sea. A series of maritime confrontations followed throughout the 1990s.10  

    The Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin Shoal, which lies about 195 km (121 miles) northwest of the Philippine province of Palawan, has been a hotspot of maritime confrontations, particularly in 2023. After the October incident near the Second Thomas Shoal, Manila recognised the severity of the security threat posed by China, leading to its exit from the Belt and Road Initiative. The deterioration of China–Philippine relations induced the Philippines to shift towards Japan to alleviate the security threat in the SCS.11   

    The change of leadership in Manila assisted this reorientation in Japan–Philippine relations. The former Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, had announced in 2016 that it was “time to say goodbye to Washington”.12 Duterte welcomed the BRI initiative and viewed China as an ally. His pro-China policy jeopardised US security relations, almost putting an end to the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.

    Maritime tensions with China did not dislodge Duterte’s friendly posture towards China. His priority was to deepen economic ties with China and benefit from a raft of trade and infrastructure deals, a significantly different approach from the one taken by his predecessor Benigno Aquino III. Under Aquino’s leadership, the Philippines had emerged victorious when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea.

    In hopes of obtaining economic concessions from China, Duterte devalued the ICJ ruling and stated that Manila was in no position to counter China.13 However, Manila’s stance on China changed drastically when Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. took the helm. Marcos’s position is “not to look for trouble but to defend against Chinese aggression”. His tenure is increasingly being marked by cooperation with Japan and the United States. Marcos’s entry into power has paved the way for Japan to further bilateral defence cooperation.14         

    The outbreak of the Russia–Ukraine war triggered a series of security policy responses from Japan as well. Tokyo’s perception of the severity of the security threat in the Indo-Pacific heightened after the war commenced. Japan has stated the aim of doubling its defence expenditure to about 2 per cent of its GDP, which is about 43 trillion yen (US$ 320 billion), by 2027. The NSS 2022 also highlighted Japan’s intent to take proactive measures to build security cooperation with “like-minded” countries, through the OSA initiative.15

    The NSP 2023–28 of Manila and the NSS 2022 of Japan also reflect similar security objectives such as augmenting of armed forces, reinforcing security arrangements with the US, and developing a potent cyber-security system. The similarity of these security objectives and interests are bringing Tokyo and Manilla closer in security terms, especially given their common concerns based on China’s maritime assertion in the SCS.16     

    Through the OSA framework, Japan is to provide the Philippines with equipment and supplies as well as assistance for developing infrastructure. The OSA also includes activities related to monitoring and surveillance in territorial waters and airspace, humanitarian activities such as disaster response and international peace cooperation operations such as capacity building to participate in peacekeeping operations.

    Japan offered a ¥600 million (US$ 4 million) grant to the Philippines to aid its defence ministry’s endeavour to obtain coastal radars for maritime security.  The two countries are also expected to commence negotiations associated with the conclusion of the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which will set the foundation for the Self-Defence Forces and the Philippine military to conduct joint exercises. Manila also received its first military equipment from Tokyo, an air surveillance radar system, as part of a 2020 contract. The Philippines is now the third country to have such an agreement with Japan, following Australia and Britain.17  


    Converging security interests have brought Japan and the Philippines closer than ever before. Japan’s revised security policy has allowed it to play the role of a vital security partner. Though the Philippines has a long way to go in terms of developing a robust military that can counter the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific, accepting the OSA provided by Japan is certainly a strong step towards realising its vision of a self-reliant military power. The OSA will help Tokyo and Manila enhance bilateral defence cooperation and reinforce the prospect of better security relations in the future. 

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.