Fellows Speak


Implications of Japan PM Abe’s state visit to the Philippines last week

Bobby M. Tuazon
Aug. 2, 2013

Japan PM Abe's visit in the Philippines last week was aimed at revitalizing "strategic partnership" between the two countries as part of the overall strategy to strengthen Japan's economic and trading niche in Southeast Asia. The increased "maritime cooperation" that was agreed upon by both Mr. Abe and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III is the security embellishment to the "strategic partnership" in which the Abe government needs to draw support from the Philippines regarding its own territorial dispute with China. There is basis for the Japanese prime minister's expectations from Aquino: Japan is involved in the peace process in the Bangsamoro part of Mindanao (southern Philippines) with P6.6B economic assistance for development; Japan is also the Philippines' No. 1 trade partner in 2012 and is also the latter's largest source of development aid and second largest source of foreign investments.

On the other hand, PM Abe's visit rekindled the World War II issue of "comfort women" - victims of prostitution involving the Japanese imperial army's soldiers. The Filipino "comfort women" many of whom have died with a few now in their 80s/90s want the Japanese government to extend its official apology for the atrocities as well as give just compensation for the crimes committed. Until now, no such apology has been issued by Tokyo.

President Aquino III, who takes pride in being a junior ally of the US, achieved the government's objectives in the Japanese prime minister's state visit: in terms of economic assistance, more foreign investments and tourists, and, more importantly, military assistance with Mr. Abe pledging to give 10 "multi-role response boats" for the Philippine Coast Guard plus communications systems for coast patrol in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to support the Philippines' "minimum defense / deterrence capability".

Philippine governments since the late 1940s have been extremely reliant on economic as well as military aid from both the US and Japan. One can count several treaties and agreements signed between the Philippines and Japan that have deepened this reliance on foreign partners. As a quid pro quo, Japan has increased its acceptance of overseas Filipino workers (or migrant contractual workers from domestics to professionals) which is expected to boost the Philippines' GDP considering that growth is kept afloat largely by OFW remittances from all over the world.

Both PM Abe and President Aquino III avoided naming any country when they talked about increasing "maritime aggression" in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as their reason for maintaining both countries' strategic alliance and maritime cooperation. Both leaders also made it clear that the military assistance Japan was extending to the Philippine navy was designed to beef up its "minimum defense / deterrence capability" in the SCS. That message can be interpreted to mean that Japan is not about to embark on a "containment strategy" against China especially because that is already being served by the US' pivot to Asia / rebalancing strategy.

But a creeping militarist strategy by Japan looms with the relaxation of export restrictions on arms exports and grand plans to boost Japan's arms industry in cooperation with some European countries. PM Abe's visit to the Philippines serves this purpose - it will eventually boost Japan's arms industry given the new agreements reached with the Aquino government.

Japan is treading on a dangerous ground if its renewed interest in Southeast Asia particularly the Philippines is motivated by arms exports and the further militarization of the SCS (or WPS). Many Southeast Asian countries who, despite their territorial claims, are increasingly into greater economic cooperation and integration with China will find it a chilling message of a Japan flexing its military muscle in the region - given their past experiences with Japan during World War II. It would be best for Japan to confine its competition with China in the areas of trade and investments and avoid extending its territorial disputes with China to Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Such actions will not help the peaceful resolution of territorial claims between Japan and China. Powers should honor an ASEAN treaty guaranteeing Southeast Asia as a zone of peace and security as well as nuclear-free. CenPEG.org

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