MANILA – As the Philippines celebrated its Day of Valor, commemorating its resistance to Imperial Japan’s invasion during World War II, the two former foes conducted their first-ever “2+2” meeting last meeting amid now burgeoning bilateral strategic ties.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi met their Philippine counterparts Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in Tokyo, as the two US allies explored new ways and means to strengthen defense and strategic cooperation amid rising geopolitical uncertainties in the Indo-Pacific.

Hayashi described the high-level and unprecedented meeting as part of a joint effort to “strengthen defense cooperation in light of the increasingly harsh security environment.”

In a thinly veiled jab at China, both countries expressed “serious concern” over rising maritime tensions in the South and East China Sea and, accordingly, “strongly opposed” any unilateral action that undermines regional peace and stability.

Just days after both countries voted to suspend Russia’s membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council, they also emphasized the systematic threat posed by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

The Philippines is the only Southeast Asian country that consistently supported both the UN General Assembly vote as well as the latest UNHCR vote against Russia in solidarity with Ukraine (Myanmar’s UN seat is still held by the previous democratic regime rather than the current pro-Kremlin junta).

Crucially, the two sides explored the finalization of a new defense deal, namely the Reciprocal Access Agreement, which would dramatically enhance military interoperability and cooperation between the two countries. Currently, the Philippines has a similar agreement with two other Quad powers, namely the US and Australia.

As part of broader efforts to enhance maritime security cooperation, the Philippines and Japan also signed a contract for advanced radar systems to be built by the Mitsubishi Electric Corp and delivered next year.

Amid renewed doubts over the future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India and the three US allies of Australia, US and Japan amid disagreements over Russia, Tokyo has been assiduously cultivating alternative “Quads” with fellow US allies such as the Philippines.

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier with Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers conducting an exercise in the Philippine Sea in February 2018. Photo: US Navy via AFP

In their joint statement, the two countries explicitly “underscored the importance of each country’s respective treaty alliance with the United States and that of enhancing cooperation with regional partner countries.”

The decision to conduct the first-ever “2+2” meeting was made last November during a phone conversation between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and then newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who earlier visited the Philippines in his former capacity as foreign minister.

Though Duterte is set to step down from office in the coming months after presidential elections in May, Japan is betting on long-term strategic cooperation with the Philippines no matter who becomes the next Philippine leader. In many ways, Philippine-Japan relations are already among the most intimate and comprehensive worldwide.

Over the past decades, Japan has been the top source of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as well as a top investor and leading export destination to the Philippines.

Unbeknownst to many, Japan also trounces China in terms of new pledges of big-ticket infrastructure investments, including the multi-billion-dollar subway metro project in Metro-Manila and the North-South Commuter Railway project, which will connect the industrial regions of Luzon.

According to data from ratings agency Fitch Solutions, Japanese new investment pledges in the Philippines ($29 billion) are almost four times larger than China’s ($8 billion). 

Crucially, Japan has also established cordial ties with all key political players in the Philippines, including Duterte. For decades, the former provincial mayor had extremely warm relations with Japanese diplomats, who have maintained a century-old consulate in the southern city of Davao.

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to visit the Philippines following Duterte’s election in 2016. In fact, the former Japanese leader, accompanied by his wife, went so far as to visit Duterte’s home in Davao, underscoring the deep personal rapport between the two leaders.  

“Japan is a friend closer than a brother. That means Japan is a friend unlike any other,” Duterte once described his country’s special relationship with Japan. “Ours is a special friendship whose value is beyond any measure,” he added.

Then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP / Ezra Acayan

During his visits to Japan, Duterte has also been more open about his reservations with China, a major power that has been a key focus of the Filipino leader’s diplomatic charm offensive in recent years.

In a keynote address at the Nikkei International Conference on the  Future of Asia forum in Tokyo a few years ago, the Beijing-friendly Filipino leader openly lamented, “is it right for a country [China] to claim the whole ocean [South China Sea and Western Pacific]?”

Although Duterte repeatedly threatened to nix his country’s defense alliance with Washington, his administration enthusiastically embraced Japan as a pivotal security partner.

Over the past few years, Japan has provided key maritime security assistance, including multirole patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard as well as TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

During Duterte’s term, Japan deployed an armored vehicle unit to the Philippine-US annual Balikatan exercises for the first time since the end of World War II, which saw Filipino and American troops battling Japanese imperial forces.

Buoyed by booming strategic ties with Japan, Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana told the author in 2019 that the Philippines is interested in acquiring multiple radar systems from Japan in order to enhance its intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities in the South China Sea.

The recently-concluded “2+2” talks aimed to operationalize earlier plans for boosting defense cooperation amid shared concerns over China and, following the recent invasion of Ukraine, also Russia, which has disputes with Japan over the Kuril Islands.

The Philippines is only the second nation in Southeast Asia to have held such high-level talks with Japan, and only the ninth in the world, following Japan’s similar engagements with Australia, Britain, France, Germany, India, Indonesia and Russia and the US.

In their joint statement, both sides emphasized their shared strategic interests and values as fellow US allies. They welcomed “the contribution of a strong US presence to regional stability” and underscored the “importance of each country’s respective treaty alliance with the United States and that of enhancing cooperation with regional partner countries.”

Despite having a Beijing-friendly president, the Philippines has largely stood by its Western partners in condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

A shattered Ukraine is providing the West with a proxy arena in which it can bleed Russia dry, at minimal risk. Photo: war.ukraine.ua / Aris Messins

The two sides criticized Russia’s latest act of aggression as ” a serious violation of international law” and “deplored the dire humanitarian consequences of the hostilities, especially in Bucha,” a Ukrainian town near Kiev where war crimes were allegedly committed by retreating Russian forces.

While falling short in naming Russia, the two countries criticized the invasion as an “aggression that jeopardizes the foundation of the international order which does not accept any unilateral change of the internationally recognized borders through the use of force, thus affecting not only Europe but also Asia.”

For years, Japanese officials have been exploring the prospect of developing alternative Quads with fellow US treaty allies, especially the Philippines and Australia, but potentially even South Korea, to complement the existing Quad with India, which remains a non-aligned nation with still robust ties to Russia.

The two US allies also projected a united front on China by vowing to jointly uphold a “free and open” Indo-Pacific and criticized “unlawful maritime claims, militarization, coercive activities and the threat or use of force in the South China Sea.”

The ministers also criticized, without directly naming China, any form of “economic coercion to achieve political ends” and underscored “the importance of an international law-based economic order.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Hayashi was blunter in his own statements, openly decrying “China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo on the back of its force are continuing in the East and South China seas.”

Meanwhile, Japanese Defense Minister Kishi also confirmed that the two sides are exploring a supply-sharing defense deal, better known as Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSAs), which would dramatically enhance interoperability and security cooperation between the two sides.

Currently, the Philippines only has high-level defense deals with its treaty ally, the US, as well as a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia, another US ally and Quad member. A Philippine-Japan ACSA in near future would pave the way for a parallel Quadrilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific.