(MENAFN- Asia Times)
Barely seven months into office, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has embarked on his ninth foreign visit. His five-day working trip to Japan, however, will be his most consequential yet.
Over the past two decades, Japan has been the Philippines' top source of aid and investment, with bilateral trade reaching US$21 billion in 2019. In recent years, Japan has also become a top security partner by assisting the modernization of the Philippines' Coast Guard and maritime domain awareness capabilities.
Ahead of his departure for Tokyo, Marcos underscored the importance of his trip as“part of a larger foreign-policy agenda to forge closer political ties, stronger defense and security cooperation, as well as lasting economic partnerships with major countries in the region amid a challenging global environment.”
The Filipino leader, who has come under fire for frequent travels abroad, defended his longest bilateral visit yet as“essential,” since Japan has been“a most reliable partner, in times of both crises and of prosperity” for the Philippines.
Accompanied by a 150-strong delegation of businesspeople, Marcos is expected to secure multibillion-dollar investment pledges, which could generate up to 8,000 new jobs at home.
The two sides are expected to sign seven new agreements aimed at boosting cooperation in the areas of infrastructure development, digital economy, agriculture and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. With the Philippines granting US forces access to bases near the South China Sea and Taiwan's southern shores, Japan is also seeking tighter defense ties with the Southeast Asian country.
Crucially, the two sides are exploring a comprehensive defense pact similar to the Philippines' Visiting Forces Agreements (VFA) with the United States and Australia. In an unprecedented move, Japan is also eyeing a major defense aid package to its key Southeast Asian partner.
Amid blossoming bilateral relations, Marcos is expected to meet Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, whom he will officially invite to the Philippines in the near future. Special relationship
As a key US ally, the Philippines was at the receiving end of Imperial Japan's brutality throughout World War II. But not long after the end of the global conflict, Tokyo rapidly rehabilitated its ties with Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines through proactive economic diplomacy.
Accordingly, Japan chose Manila to host the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the leading regional intergovernmental financial institution, while boosting industrialization and economic development across the Philippines.
In the early 2000s, Japan became the only country to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the Philippines, the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPEA), underscoring the depth of bilateral economic ties.
Altogether, Japan has been the largest source of development aid to the Philippines, a leading export destination and a top investor , particularly in infrastructure development.
Japan's most recent mega-projects include Manila's first subway metro as well as a north-south commuter railway project , with japan's new infrastructure projects alone amounting to as much as $29 billion in recent years.
According to Philippine Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno, a former central-bank governor and budget secretary, Japan alone was responsible for“almost 80%” of total foreign financing for infrastructure development projects in recent years.
Eager to boost the economy, the Marcos Jr administration has announced a $372 billion infrastructure development intiative, which will rely on a mixture of government financing, foreign aid and, mostly, public-private-partnership deals.
During his trip to Japan, Marcos is expected to secure $3 billion in financing for the development of the Philippine railroad system amid suspension of China-backed projects last year. Japan not only has deep experience in developing major projects in the Philippines, but it also offers concessional loans with remarkably low interest rates.
Currently, Japan is mulling $1.6 billion in annual infrastructure development assistance to the Philippines in addition to an $8 billion aid package discussed between the two countries in recent years.
In recent years, bilateral relations have taken a more comprehensive dimension, with Japan becoming a top security partner too. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, Japan provided multi-role vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard while also supplying surveillance aircraft to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
In 2018, Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) deployed, for the first time in the postwar period, an armored-vehicle unit to participate in annual US-Philippine Balikatan exercises, which have increasingly focused on maritime security and potential contingencies in the South China Sea.
In another first, the two sides also held their first-ever“2+2” meeting between their defense and foreign ministers last year, where they underscored shared commitment to deal with geopolitical threats in East Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.
During that high-level meeting the two sides also discussed the supply of an advanced radar system to the AFP as well as finalizing a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RCA) in order to enhance interoperability and Japanese access to Philippine military facilities in the near future.
Last year also saw another first, when Japanese fighter jets were deployed to the Philippines for joint exercises with the Philippine Air Force. The air force's commander, Lieutenant-General Connor Anthony Canlas, described the historic moment as a milestone in bilateral defense relations and went so far as saying that the Japanese armed forces, a former enemy,“are now our allies.”
Marcos Jr's decision to grant the Pentagon expanded access to Philippine bases across the country, especially near the South China Sea and Taiwan, has injected new vigor into Philippine-Japan relations.
“As the United States deepens its relationship with the Philippines, it's important for regional security that Japan join in,” a Japanese Defense Ministry official recently told reuters , underscoring the importance of ongoing discussions to upgrade Philippine-Japan defense relations.
During his five-day visit to Japan, Marcos is expected to discuss an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSAs), paving the way for a full-fledged Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) deal with Japan in the near future.
With Japan planning to to double its defense spending in the next five years, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's administration is also contemplating expanded projection of power overseas. Enjoying a super-majority in the Japanese parliament, the ruling coalition is also considering further reinterpretation, if not revision, of the pacifist constitution.
Recently, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said it was“indispensable for Japan to not only fundamentally reinforce its own defense power but also to improve the deterrence capability of like-minded countries.”
Accordingly, Japan, in another first, is contemplating a major security aid package to the Philippines in order to strengthen the Southeast Asian country's minimum deterrence capabilities as well as facilitate a major upgrade in bilateral defense ties.
The US is closely watching the trajectory of Philippine-Japan relations, given its significance for the Pentagon's“integrated deterrence” strategy against China.
“This is a significant strategic reshuffling,” US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said last week, referring to deepening us-japan-philippine defense ties amid rising tensions with China across the Western Pacific. He added that it“would be a major contribution to the strategic alignment in the area from a deterrence standpoint.”