Philippine leader welcomes evolving Japan security role

TOKYO - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Friday welcomed Japan's growing security engagement, as regional tensions with China grow, the day after signing a deal to buy 10 ships to bolster his coastguard.

Closing out a four-day visit to Japan that has highlighted the warm relationship between Manila and Tokyo, Aquino said no one need fear moves by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to beef up the role of the Japanese military.

"The Philippines follows with interest Japan's ongoing review of its security policy and legislation with a view to allowing Japan to play a more proactive role in peace and security in our region and the world," he told reporters in Tokyo.

"Countries of goodwill can only benefit if the Japanese government is... allowed to come to aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defence." Abe is seeking to loosen restrictions that have prevented Japan's well-funded and well-trained military from operating outside of a very narrowly-defined "self-defence" role.

Seoul and Beijing - onetime victims of Japanese imperialism - caution he is trying to remilitarise a country they say does not fully accept its guilt for World War II wrongs.

But leaders of countries in the region that suffered under Japan's yoke - among whom Aquino is the most vocal - reject that interpretation, and say China is a greater present-day threat to regional stability.

The Philippines is one of several littoral states that have disputes with China over ownership of parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing, which claims the body of water almost entirely, has built 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of artificial islands in the sea, including those with facilities that appear to have a military purpose.

"We are particularly gravely concerned by the land reclamation activities," Aquino said. "These activities prejudice and undermine arbitration that the Philippines has initiated to settle disputes." On Thursday Aquino signed a 12.79 billion yen ($103 million) deal with a Japanese shipbuilder to buy a fleet of 10 patrol vessels. The money is being provided in low interest loans from Tokyo.

The ships will add muscle to the Philippines' woefully equipped coastguard, the front line in Manila's pushback against China's maritime strategy.

Earlier in the visit, Aquino had sparked fury in Beijing by comparing its programme of reclamation with that of Nazi Germany in the run up to WWII, urging the international community to put its foot down.

Asked Friday whether he was concerned about hurting Chinese feelings with such remarks, he replied: "We are just standing up for our rights. We respect everybody...We think our rights ought to be respected." Manila's willingness to stand up to Beijing is manna to Tokyo, which has its own territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.