Home / Articles / Japan’s Security Engagement with the Philippines
Japan’s deepening security ties to the Philippines have required Tokyo to modify its once seemingly immutable pacifist security policies. Those modifications have paved the way for Japanese security engagement initiatives with other countries, including Malaysia and Vietnam.
Japanese security engagement with the Philippines began very slowly after the turn of the millennium. That engagement turned a corner during Yoshihiko Noda’s tenure as prime minister in 2011, and accelerated after Shinzō Abe became prime minister for the second time in 2012.
China’s aggressive behavior on Asia’s maritime periphery has led the Japanese public to accept the need for greater security engagement abroad.
In June 2023, Japan’s sent its largest coast guard patrol ship, the Akitsushima, to the Philippines. There, it participated in trilateral exercises with its Philippine and American counterparts for the first time. Four months earlier, Tokyo prepared what amounted to its first-ever foreign military assistance grant to Manila. The grant of as much as 2 billion yen (or about $15 million) to the Philippines would help it pay for equipment that would boost the security of its sea lanes of communications through the South China Sea. Even though the size of the assistance package was relatively small, it nevertheless exemplified Japan’s growing security engagement with the Philippines, a country that has been at the forefront of Tokyo’s nearly two-decade long drive to deepen its security ties with Southeast Asia.
Such milestones in security cooperation and materiel support were not reached easily. Before Tokyo could provide Manila with either sort of backing, it had to establish the legal ability to do so. That has required Tokyo to modify its once seemingly immutable pacifist security policies, measures that have been encouraging to some and troubling to others. Interestingly, among those who have been the most encouraged have come from countries that Imperial Japan occupied during World War II. In 2014, then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino III gushed: “nations of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others.” To be sure, China’s aggressive behavior on Asia’s maritime periphery influenced the tenor of his remark. Beijing’s assertiveness has also led a still-hesitant Japanese public to accept the need for greater security engagement abroad.
Why the Philippines?
Within Southeast Asia, the Philippines is a natural security partner for Japan. The country, like Japan, is an archipelagic country that has experienced a steady rise in security pressure from Beijing. For the Philippines, that has been manifested in Chinese maritime intimidation, opportunistic occupation of Mischief Reef, and blockade of Scarborough Shoal near the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha in China). China declared an East China Sea air-defense identification zone near Japan and harassed Japanese vessels around the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in China).
Japan and the Philippines are also long-standing American treaty allies. As such, their armed forces have had long exposure to and likely been influenced by U.S. military practices, making cooperation between them easier. And, by the turn of the millennium, Japanese leaders had already begun to believe that stronger security ties with the Philippines, in concert with their bilateral alliances with the United States, could further bolster deterrence in the Western Pacific. Washington has come to agree. What proved thornier for Japanese leaders has been how to put it into practice.
One big hurdle that Tokyo would have to surmount was how to furnish the Philippines with materiel support. As early as 2005, the Philippines requested such support to bolster its coast guard. Unfortunately, Japan was prevented from providing it by its 1967 “three principles” policy. That policy banned arms exports to countries that were members of the communist bloc, were subject to arms embargos under the United Nations Security Council resolutions, or were involved in international conflicts and was made even more restrictive in 1976 to include basically all countries.
The first real modification to that policy did not occur until 2011 when then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda exempted some arms exports for humanitarian and peaceful purposes or if related to joint weapons development and production. After Shinzō Abe became Japan’s prime minister for the second time in 2012, he pushed for more modifications. He took his case to the Japanese public and won a crucial victory in the Japanese Diet’s upper-house election in 2013.
The next year, Abe’s government adopted a refreshed “Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology,” making it easier for Tokyo to provide defense equipment to foreign countries. Regarding the Philippines, the first two of the principles were readily satisfied. Tokyo believed that transfers of defense equipment to the Philippines would benefit Japanese security, and the Philippines was not involved in any international conflicts nor in violation of any international treaties or United Nations resolutions. Satisfying the third principle took a bit more time. Manila needed to sign a Defense Equipment and Technology Transfer Agreement, which restricted it from selling or transferring the equipment to third parties. Manila signed in 2016.
However, Tokyo still had to find a way to pay for such transfers. Without a military assistance budget, Abe creatively turned to the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s existing Official Development Assistance program, which has traditionally financed economic development abroad. By broadly interpreting economic development to include maritime safety, Abe was able to tap the Official Development Assistance program to fund the construction of ten unarmed 44-meter Parola-class patrol boats for the Philippine Coast Guard, which were delivered between 2016 and 2018. Later, the Japan International Cooperation Agency would also fund the construction of a new class of 97-meter patrol boats, the first of which underwent sea trials in 2022.
Abe also tackled a related but separate issue: how to transfer excess equipment from Japan’s self-defense forces without full cost recovery. The issue arose in 2015 when Tokyo and Manila began to discuss the transfer of three retired TC-90 trainer aircraft from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force to the Philippines for use as maritime patrol aircraft. Initially, Tokyo tried leasing the aircraft to minimize the upfront cost, but that proved unattractive. Eventually, Japan modified its national security law to permit the transfer of excess defense materiel for sums below their original cost. And in 2017, the TC-90s were transferred to the Philippines for free. Soon after, Japan resolved a similar situation involving the transfer of excess spare parts from Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force to the Philippines to restore seven of its UH-1 utility helicopters.
Through such efforts, Japan demonstrated its seriousness in engaging the Philippines on security matters. That seriousness has been reciprocated. Even the administration of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which cozied up to China and refrained from procuring American hardware, readily embraced the possibility of acquiring Japanese air surveillance radars in 2019. Three years later, the first of three Japanese J/FPS-3 fixed radar systems was delivered to the Philippines and it may soon order a J/TPS-P14 a mobile radar system too.
Finally, in April 2023, Japan established an Overseas Security Assistance program. The new program opens the door to more formal military materiel support, though the program’s funds may still be restricted to non-lethal equipment purchases. Even so, the program might pave the way for the Philippines to acquire some of Japan’s soon-to-be-retired fleet of P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, a platform that the Philippine military has eyed since 2015. The aircraft would enable Manila to conduct not only long-endurance maritime surveillance, but also anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, if later equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.
Tokyo’s other big hurdle was how to ramp up its security cooperation with the Philippines. In 2005, the two countries began holding regular security dialogues. But for years little tangible came of them. The first real change began only after Aquino and Noda agreed to expand the consultations and exercises between their respective coast guards and navies in 2011. A year later, the two countries signed a strategic partnership pact to boost the Philippines’ maritime security. But due to the political sensitivities in Japan, the scope of Japan’s security cooperation was initially limited to the training of non-military organizations, like the Philippine Coast Guard.
Still, as the legal restrictions around Japan’s materiel support eased, so too did those on Japan’s security cooperation. By 2015, Japan and the Philippines had held both coast guard and naval exercises together. The former practiced anti-piracy drills and the latter on how to deal with “unplanned encounters at sea.” The following year, Japan dispatched more warships to the Philippines, including the diesel-electric attack submarine Oyashio which gave the Philippine navy the opportunity to learn about a capability it has long been interested in acquiring. Such port visits continued with even more capable warships, including the Kaga, a one-time helicopter carrier (now light aircraft carrier) that arrived in the Philippines at the head of a four-ship task force in 2018. Since then, Japanese warships have routinely visited the Philippines.
In the mid-2010s, Manila also began allowing Japanese military aircraft to refuel in the Philippines. Thus, in 2015, a Japanese P-3 maritime patrol aircraft was able to land on Palawan Island in the western Philippines for the first time. But given the priority that Japan and the Philippines have placed on maritime security cooperation, it was not until 2021 that Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force held its first bilateral exercise with the Philippines. It was a modest affair, with Japan contributing a single C-130 transport aircraft.
The next step for Japanese security cooperation may involve the rotation of Japanese ground troops through the Philippines for training exercises, much like American and Australian forces already do. But for that to happen, Japan and the Philippines would need to come to terms on a Visiting Forces Agreement and a reciprocal access agreement. In 2013, then-Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Voltaire Gazmin already commented on his country’s willingness to discuss a Visiting Forces Agreement for Japan. And, while one has yet to materialize, negotiations over a reciprocal access agreement have been reportedly underway since 2022.
Like everything else, security dialogues between Japan and the Philippines started slowly. The first formal dialogue between senior civilian defense officials from the two countries occurred in 2005. Regular dialogue between the senior uniformed officers did not begin until 2012. And ten more years would pass before Tokyo and Manila set up concurrent meetings involving both their defense and foreign ministers under a “2+2 ministerial framework.” A year later, the national security advisors of Japan and the Philippines (along with that of the United States) began holding their own annual meeting. Their pace notwithstanding, the rising number of regular high-level dialogues between Japan and the Philippines suggests that Tokyo’s bid to boost its security engagement with Manila is working.
Japan’s Not-So-Normal Approach
For over two decades, Japan has steadily expanded its security engagement with the Philippines. Some have worried that the real driver behind such engagement has been the Japanese political right’s desire for Japan to be a “normal” country—one that has a formal military and can take part in collective security arrangements. For some small segment of Japan’s electorate, that may be true. But for the majority, it is not. In a May 2023 Asahi poll of Japanese voters, only 11 percent would support allowing Japanese forces to fight alongside their American counterparts and only 56 percent would be comfortable with Japanese forces even providing rear-area support to the US military. The readiness of Japan’s polity to support a more muscular defense posture continues to restrain Tokyo, despite general agreement among Japanese strategists on the need to amass greater strength.
No doubt, it will take time for Japan to fully develop the sort of security engagement that the United States routinely practices. But Japan has come a long way. Some politicians have now urged Tokyo to take the next step: to modify Japanese policy again to allow Tokyo to export lethal weapons to its security partners. That could prove useful to not only recipients of the weapons, but also their Japanese manufacturers.
Given China’s continued aggressive behavior, the Philippines is unlikely to be the only country to welcome greater security engagement with Japan. Most notably, Vietnam has held maritime exercises with Japan as well as accepted its offers of patrol boats. Meanwhile, Malaysia and Fiji have been mentioned as possible future recipients of Japanese military assistance. Clearly, Japanese security engagement has had a slow start, but it may gain momentum soon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Brett Cote