Japan, Philippines to deepen ties as China asserts sea claims

TOKYO/MANILA - Japan and the Philippines are set to bolster security ties when President Benigno Aquino visits Tokyo next week, the latest move by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to beef up co-operation with Southeast Asian nations facing China's growing naval ambitions.

The two sides will likely agree to start talks on a framework for the transfer of defence equipment and technology and to discuss a possible pact on the status of Japanese military personnel visiting the Philippines to facilitate joint training and exercises, officials involved in the talks said.

Aquino's June 2-5 trip to Japan follows Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's visit this week, during which the two leaders agreed to upgrade ties to a strategic partnership and to co-operate in defence equipment.

Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin will accompany Aquino.

The Philippines has already handed Japan a list of Japanese defence equipment it wants to acquire such as P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft that Tokyo is replacing with newer planes, a senior Philippine naval officer told Reuters.

"We have submitted a wish list to Japan, what equipment the Philippines needs urgently to boost our maritime security" in the South China Sea, he said, adding Manila was in discussion with Tokyo over a package of soft loans to purchase the kit.

Under Abe's leadership, Japan last year eased its restrictions on arms exports, and is now seen as the frontrunner to win a contract to supply next generation submarines to Australia.

Tokyo already has agreements on defence equipment and technology transfers with the United States, Britain, Australia and France and a similar pact with Manila is needed to allow it to export to the Philippines.

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which much of Japan's ship-borne trade passes. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

Beijing on Tuesday outlined a strategy to boost its naval reach amid growing criticism from Washington and some Asian countries over its rapid creation of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea.

Abe's defence minister, Gen Nakatani, has repeatedly said the situation in the South China Sea is having a bigger impact on Japan's security and that Tokyo needs to consider how to respond.

Bills being debated in Japan's parliament would ease the pacifist constitution's constraints on the military's overseas activities, raising the chance that Tokyo could get dragged into action in the South China Sea in support of US forces.

Japan itself is embroiled in a row with China over a group of East China Sea islets, with patrol ships and fighter jets routinely shadowing each other near the uninhabited islands.

The Philippine coastguard hopes to get by year-end the first of 10 vessels Japan is building for it while Japan is also supplying used patrol boats to Vietnam's coastguard.

In addition, Tokyo and Manila held their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea this month.