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Politics & Security

Kishida Visits the Philippines with Japan's Defense in Mind

Like Japan, the Philippines is part of the "first island chain" and strategic terrain for defending the region's small democratic bloc from an aggressive China.

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with Philippine President Marcos before the meeting, November 3, Manila (©Kyodo)

Japanese officers have been saying for years, "Taiwan's defense is Japan's defense." They'd also tell you, "The Philippines' defense is Japan's defense." And it's true.

The Philippines is strategic terrain – part of the so-called "first island chain" running from Japan to Taiwan and onwards through the Philippines to Malaysia. This chain of islands hems in the Chinese People's Liberation Army, or PLA, in the event of a war. And in peacetime as well. 

The Philippines also plays an essential role in Taiwan's defense, basically guarding Taiwan's southern flank. If China moves on Taiwan it will have to deal with the Philippines.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's recent visit to Manila ought to be viewed in the context of Japanese concerns over its own defense from an aggressive China.

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Two Countries Working Together 

Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr agreed to start talks on a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) such as Japan has with Australia and Great Britain. That makes military interactions between each nation easier to conduct. 

But Japan and the Philippines already have a military-to-military relationship, though Japan doesn't publicize it much. And it is often overshadowed by the more comprehensive Philippine-United States defense activities. 

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) engagements with the Philippines have been going on for some time now ー including exercises in the South China Sea where the Chinese have been bullying the Philippines. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) has joined multilateral exercises and bilateral engagements in and with the Philippines. Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighters put in a first-ever appearance in the Philippines in 2022.   

Additionally, Japan has provided aerial and naval patrol craft to the Philippines. Air-defense radar systems are also in the works. 

Prime Minister Kishida (center right) inspecting a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, November 4, Manila (©Kyodo)

What Else Japan Can Do

Prime Minister Kishida is in fact bolstering the support Japan is already providing the Philippines ー both defense-wise and economically. He is indicating, too, that more of such support is on the way.  

There's much more that Japan can do on the defense front. That includes regular joint patrols with Philippine and other navies to defend Philippine territory. Japan could also send more than token-sized units to participate in the US-Philippine-led multilateral exercises in the Philippines. And when the time comes to directly confront Chinese bullying, Japan needs to step up.

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But for now, Japan is demonstrating its support for the Philippines. And it complements the far deeper US military involvement in the country post-[Rodrigo] Duterte.

One hopes the Americans and Japanese are coordinating their efforts.

Looking Beyond the Military

Where Japan can make a real difference is in an all-out push to further assist the Philippines on the infrastructure and economic development front. Japan has the money, the know-how, and the experience. It's carried out such projects in several other than first-world countries.  

Japan of course has development projects already ongoing in the Philippines. But especially now that the Philippines is disentangling itself from several Chinese "Belt and Road Projects" that former President Duterte agreed to, it's essential that Japan steps in and shows itself to be a good alternative to Chinese investment ー which it is.  

It would be helpful if the Americans also joined in with the Japanese on this infrastructure development effort. But this is an area where Japan can and should be in the lead.  

The "economic is the political" in this case. And when it comes to infrastructure such as ports and airfields and even roads, there is a clear military usefulness as well. That would be for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the US military, and potentially others, including JSDF.

Japanese PM Fumio Kishida speaks to the Philippine Congress as a guest on November 4 in Manila. (©Kyodo)

Don't Overlook the Filipinos

One should consider that President Marcos and some other patriotic Filipinos have shifted the country away from the entanglement with the PRC that former President Duterte created. This is a bold move on Marcos' part to shift the nation's basic alignment back to the US and the free world. It needs support, and Marcos needs to show results domestically. 

Japanese political support – not just military support – is immensely valuable. It's psychologically important for Filipinos to see that two major countries are on their side. And hopefully, that will continue for the foreseeable future.  

Indeed, the Philippines are starting to be a stalwart of a "democratic" bloc of smaller nations in Asia. Manila has arguably more effectively challenged and exposed China's gray-zone activities than the United States. If this courage is supported, many across the region will take note and might be encouraged themselves to try to break free from Beijing's increasingly tight grip.  

When you take on China you want some big, reliable friends.

Philippines Army Chief General Andres Centino, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, and Navy Chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr, link arms with ASEAN navy officials after ASEAN Multilateral Naval Exercises at Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines May 11, 2023. (©REUTERS by Eloisa Lopez)

Thank You, Beijing

Tokyo and Washington can thank the Chinese for antagonizing and humiliating the Philippines. They've taken it to the point that there is a huge constituency in the Philippines that wants nothing to do with the PRC.  

Now it's up to the Japanese (and the Americans) to demonstrate that they offer a much better alternative. And, unlike the Chinese, they are not seeking to dominate the Philippines and steal Philippine territory and resources.

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The defense agreements Japan is signing with other nations are a positive thing. Japan is trying to defend itself and the Philippines is a piece of the puzzle.

And Japan's infrastructure development efforts directly relate to its national defense. They are a huge contribution to the efforts of the free world.

But looking outwards and having friendly relations, including defense relations with other nations is not a replacement for concrete, well-considered efforts by Japan to properly restructure its own defense. 

And having a clear plan for defending Taiwan – along with the US force – is essential. 

In fact, Japan should do for Taiwan what it's doing for the Philippines. All their futures are tied together, and any weak link is a risk for the whole chain.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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