MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines and Japan on Thursday welcomed the deepening of their “strategic partnership” for defense, particularly in maritime affairs, amid their territorial disputes with an increasingly aggressive China.
Without mentioning China, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera vowed their governments would work together to protect their territories in accordance with the rule of law.
The meeting between Gazmin and Onodera was the first between the defense chiefs of the Philippines and Japan in nearly a decade.
The two defense chiefs also discussed the United States’ rebalancing of its forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
“We did not talk about any individual or specific equipment of United States forces, but we agreed that Japan and the Philippines will work together to make this rebalance a reality,” Onodera said.
He added that he learned from Gazmin that the Philippines was “making efforts to further increase the rotational deployment of the United States forces and I have also heard that the Philippine side is now discussing with the United States (its) presence in the Philippines.”
Gazmin said the ways that would allow the increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines were “being examined.”
These include the conduct of “high-value, high-impact exercises,” regularly carried out with the Americans.
The Philippines and the United States on Thursday began five days of joint naval exercises near Panatag Shoal and other parts of northern Luzon.
Gazmin and Onodera held a joint press conference after their hourlong meeting at the Department of National Defense headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.
“The Japanese government is not aiming at protecting (Japan) from any specific nation. But our stance is that we keep our territorial space, territorial air, and sea space well protected according to our activities,” Onodera said, speaking through an interpreter.
“I also like to emphasize here that the current situation should not be changed with the use of force, but should be done through the rule of law and I think this is the concept that is agreed upon in the international community these days,” Onodera said.
Gazmin said the Japanese government had expressed its support for the Philippines’ move to seek arbitration in the United Nations to resolve its dispute with China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground off Zambales province.
The Philippines has practically lost Panatag to China, but it is staving off China’s claim to its part of the Spratly archipelago, particularly the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), where a handful of Chinese vessels remain.
Onodera said he and Gazmin discussed the “situation and shared information” regarding the issues in the West Philippine Sea.
He said it was a “very similar situation” seen in East China Sea.
China is also locked in a territorial row with Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkakus but which the Chinese call Diaoyus.
Defense of islands
“I said that the Japanese side is very concerned that this kind of situation in the South China Sea could affect the situation in the East China Sea that includes Japan, and I have heard from Secretary Gazmin about the various activities taken by the Philippine Armed Forces in this matter,” Onodera said.
“I have told him that Japan will cooperate with the Philippines in this matter,” he added.
Onodera said he and Gazmin agreed that the two countries would cooperate for the “defense of remote islands as well as the defense of territorial seas and protection of maritime interests.”
“We also agreed that in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, we are both facing common concerns, and those issues of concerns should be based on the rule of law and we agreed on that. We agreed that Japan and the Philippines, as good neighbors, to further strengthen our defense cooperation,” Onodera said.