Aquino backs Abe’s military ambitions

The Philippines and Japan both deal with the problem of China's expansionism and share a common interest in protecting their respective territories

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday endorsed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to amend Japan's constitution and expand the Japanese role on regional security amid China's expansionism moves.

The Filipino leader, after meeting with Abe, expressed his support for Abe's proposal to reinterpret Japan's pacifist constitution to allow its military to defend not only Japan but also its allies that are under attack.

"We believe that nations of goodwill can benefit only if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defence," Aquino said in a statement after his talks with Abe.

"We therefore do not view with alarm any proposal to revisit the Japanese constitution if the Japanese people so desire, especially if this enhances Japan's ability to address its international obligations and brings us closer to … our shared goals of peace, stability and mutual prosperity."

Abe has proposed to revisit Article 9 of the Japanese charter, which bans the right to collective self-defence.

The proposal faces tough opposition from Japanese citizens who do not want their country to participate in a war, owing to their experience in World War II.

Japan is only one of two countries with which the Philippines has a "strategic partnership," the other being the United States, which is also a treaty ally.

Strategic partnership is a concept where countries work together to achieve long-term shared interests, from security issues to economic concerns.

Aquino and Abe both emphasised the importance of strengthening the two countries' partnership.

The Philippines and Japan both deal with the problem of China's expansionism and share a common interest in protecting their respective territories.

This has spurred regular dialogues between the Filipino leader and Abe, who have had four summit meetings in 12 months.

Aquino's remarks may pique China but the two leaders, in their statements, were careful not to mention their assertive neighbour.

3 principles

"In the face of the regional situation becoming increasingly severe, both nations are closely coordinating," Abe said in his statement.

"I reaffirmed with President Aquino today the significance of the three principles of the rule of law, which I outlined at the Shangri-La dialogue and at the G-7 meeting."

The three principles Abe referred to are: states shall make and clarify their claims based on international law; states shall not use force or coercion in trying to drive their claims; and states shall seek to settle disputes by peaceful means.

The President said both sides updated each other on the current situation in the South and East China Seas.

In supporting Abe's move to allow Japan to exercise its right to collective self-defence, Aquino said this would "redound to [the Philippines'] benefit."

He gave as an example the time when Syrian rebels kidnapped Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights last year.

"In a sense, to us, it is very real," Aquino said at a press conference.

"There was an instance already that we conceivably could have needed their assistance and they would not have been able to [help]."

Asked if the Philippines and Japan would forge a security cooperation, the President said the two countries were "advancing the dialogue to that."

He said the intention to discuss a defence agreement was signed in 2012.

Strategic partners "We're getting one step further from that," Aquino said.

Will the Philippines and Japan have a defence tie-up similar to the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States?

Aquino stressed the importance of cooperation between two defence forces, especially in times of disasters, similar to the Philippine-US cooperation in coping with the destruction caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in the Visayan region.

"If we have interoperability and we know each other's systems, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses," Aquino said.

"We have those practices with the Americans. It's more sporadic with the Japanese.

Since they are our only two strategic partners, doesn't it behoove us to have more coordination with these two strategic partners?" the President said.

Territorial disputes Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is in the midst of tough negotiations with its coalition partner, the New Komeito, which has so far balked at Abe's proposal to allow collective self-defence with other states.

Under the current interpretation of the constitution, the Japanese military can use force only to defend Japan.

Aquino's support comes as Japan and the Philippines deepen security ties in the face of China's military expansion and territorial disputes both they and other Asian nations have with China.

Neither Aquino nor Abe mentioned China by name, but both referred to the changing security environment.

China's rise is a potential challenge to US dominance in the Pacific, and control of vital shipping routes as well as potential undersea oil and natural gas.

China has criticised Japan's push for collective self-defence, warning against the return of Japanese militarism that wreaked havoc across much of Asia before and during World War II.

Aquino acknowledged the devastation the Philippines suffered in the hands of the Japanese, but said his country's relations with Japan had been marked by trust and unfailing support in the years since.

Aquino's and Abe's comments highlight how regional neighbours are forging alliances to counter an increasingly muscular Beijing as it presses its influence in nearby waters.

Tokyo and Manila, former World War II enemies, have been drawn closer in recent years as they have tackled their parallel disputes with China.

Maritime defence Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the shores of neighbouring countries, and has become more aggressive in enforcing what it says are its historical rights.

When Abe visited Manila in July last year, he pledged Japan's help in strengthening the Philippines' maritime defence capabilities.

Part of that was a promise of 10 patrol boats for the Philippines' poorly equipped Coast Guard, which is in the front line of Manila's spat with Beijing.

The Philippines has lodged repeated protests over China's growing military and civilian presence on islands and in waters within what it considers its exclusive economic zone.

Relations between Japan and China have plummeted over their competing claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.