PH, Japan to begin talks on visiting forces agreement
TOKYO — The Philippines is poised to begin discussions with Japan on crafting an agreement covering visits of Japanese forces in the Philippines, in a bid to advance mutual defense amid increasing threats in the Asia-Pacific.
The proposed pact is similar to the Philippines’ existing treaties with the United States and Australia.
President Benigno Aquino III said this Friday morning following the reaffirmation of close ties between two countries once torn by war, a deepening partnership embodied in a comprehensive joint declaration the Philippine leader signed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe late Thursday afternoon.
The signing of the declaration also signaled the start of negotiations for the Philippines to procure defense equipment and technology from Japan, for which Manila has yet to firm up a shopping list, Aquino said.
The development comes just as Japan continued the debate on the reinterpretation of its pacifist post-War Constitution, Article 9 of which bars the operation of a full-fledged Japanese military and the use of force in case of international disputes. Currently, Japan is limited to maintaining a “self-defense force.”
“lt was discussed yesterday during our summit meeting with the Prime Minister that the relevant entities will start discussions, leading up to a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA),” said Aquino as he took questions from members of the Japan National Press Club.
“Now, the Visiting Forces Agreement will have to be passed and approved by our Senate, and we will be starting discussions on all of the details embodied in this. Currently, the Philippines only has two Visiting Forces Agreements—one with the United States of America, and we most recently passed the one with Australia. We welcome this development,” he said.
In the backdrop of China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea, Aquino and Abe signed the joint declaration for an enhanced strategic partnership, bolstering Philippine-Japan ties particularly in the areas of security and economic growth. The two leaders signed the document five years after the signing of an initial pact.
Under the Philippine-Japan declaration, the two sides commit to “the expansion of bilateral and multi-lateral training exercises for capacity building.”
Aquino said, in a separate press briefing Thursday night, that setting this to action would first require the country’s ratification of a pact similar to the Philippines-US VFA or the Philippines-Australia Status of Forces Agreement.
The accommodation of foreign troops in the Philippines has been a sensitive issue, particularly in the case of American servicemen. In 1992, the Philippine Senate evicted US bases from the country.
But given growing security threats in the Asia Pacific, Manila last year bolstered defense ties with the US, signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement to allow an increased rotational presence of American troops in the Philippines.
Japan is one of the Philippines’ only two strategic partners, the other being the US. The President said this level of cooperation required the ability for the Philippines and Japan to jointly undertake defense operations.
Both countries are facing China’s increasing military buildup in disputed waters: the South China Sea, parts of which are being claimed by the Philippines, and the East China Sea, which is being claimed by Japan.
“As I have stated previously, it does not behoove a good partnership or relationship if you are not able to work at the inoperability with the other. Agreements even for humanitarian concerns that exist only in paper will not be effective when there comes a time that you would need to be in coordination… or joint cooperation with your strategic partner,” said the President in an open forum.
“So, yes, the Philippines does welcome this development and we will be initiating all of the diplomatic requirements to come up with a Visiting Forces Agreement,” he said.
The President also reiterated the Philippines’ positive take on Japan’s review of its pacifist policy, saying “the Philippines does not view [this development] with any concern.”
“Japan is an ally and partner to many nations, and Japan should be able to cooperate in the fullest and most effective way to promote and protect peace. Countries of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others, and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defense,” he said in his speech before journalists at the Nippon Press Center.
Engaging with Japanese journalists on the last day of his four-day state visit, Aquino again reiterated the Philippines’ right to assert its sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea despite being a smaller nation to China.
In his remarks before the press club, Aquino again slammed China’s massive reclamation activities in the South China Sea, echoing statements Abe had made in a joint press conference after their summit meeting on Thursday.
He said these continuous activities undermined the Philippines’ efforts to settle the dispute peacefully through arbitration proceedings before the United Nations.
“We are particularly gravely concerned by the land reclamation activities being undertaken in the West Philippine Sea. These activities prejudice and undermine the arbitration that the Philippines has initiated to settle the dispute in a manner compatible with international law,” said the President.
“It raises the specter of increasing militarization and threatens peace and stability in the region,” Aquino said in his speech.
Responding to questions on the sea dispute later, Aquino reminded China of its commitment to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which Beijing signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002.
The President cited how the Philippines has been trying to de-escalate tensions even as China’s massive reclamation activities continued. He said the Philippines even suspended repairs of an airstrip on Pag-Asa Island, located within the Philippine exclusive economic zone within the disputed Spratly Islands.
“I guess one of the questions we would want to ask the Chinese people is: “If you were the Philippines and suddenly you would have one coastline, or in effect, your whole west coast is gone, would you say: ‘Yes, please take half of our waterways?” said Aquino.
“I don’t think any country would willingly do that. So we are just standing up for our rights. We respect everybody else’s rights. We ask that our rights also be respected,” he continued.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.