Prime Minister Fumio Kishida became the first Japanese leader to address both chambers of the Philippine Congress on Saturday, underscoring a new phase in relations between the two Asian countries marked by territorial disputes with China.
Calling the Philippines an “irreplaceable partner,” the Japanese prime minister said defense cooperation between the two nations, as well as with their common ally, the United States, was crucial in maintaining an “open international order based on the rule of law,” which he said was currently under serious threat.
“In the South China Sea, the trilateral cooperation to protect the freedom of the sea is underway,” he told the special session of Congress, adding that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces had joined as observers in the U.S.-Philippines military drills held recently. “Through these efforts, let us protect the maritime order, which is governed by laws and rules, not by force.”
Kishida arrived in Manila on Friday and met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the Malacañang presidential palace.
In a joint statement, both leaders reaffirmed their support for a “rules-based approach to resolving competing claims in maritime areas” and “their commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the East and South China Seas.”
While the Philippines and China are locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, Japan and China have contending territorial claims in the East China Sea.
In 2016, an international arbitration court ruled in favor of the Philippines when it rejected China’s territorial claims to most of the South China Sea on historical grounds.
In recent months, China and the Philippines have engaged in increasingly tense rhetoric as both countries assert their claims over the contested waters amid standoffs at sea between Chinese and Filipino coast guards and other vessels.
Kishida and Macros also agreed to start negotiating on a Reciprocal Access Agreement, a defense pact that serves as the framework for joint patrols and troop deployment for drills, among other things.
Japan also committed millions of dollars to the Philippines under a security aid package to shore up the latter’s maritime defense.
“From this standpoint, I confirmed with President Marcos during his visit to Japan in February that we would work together to maintain and strengthen the free and open international order based on the rule of law,” Kishida said.
In his speech, the Japanese leader also acknowledged historical events, vowing that Japan would not forget the “spirit of tolerance” with which the Philippines once pardoned Japanese soldiers who committed atrocities during World War II.
Meanwhile, dozens of activists with GABRIELA, a women’s advocacy group, protested outside Congress at the time, calling on the Philippine government to demand an apology from Japan for the abuse of Filipino “comfort women” who were raped and tortured during the Japanese occupation.
After Imperial Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, an estimated 1,000 women were sexually enslaved as “comfort women,” according to official records. Most have since died of old age.
“Instead of allowing the hordes of Japanese soldiers to the Philippines, Marcos must instead confront Prime Minister Kishida about the cases of violence, abuse, and rape that the comfort women suffered in World War 2,” Cora Agovida, the group’s secretary-general, told RFA-affiliated news organization BenarNews.
“Why should we allow the Philippines to be a playground for Japanese soldiers when their government can’t even apologize for the sufferings of Filipino women?”
“The military access agreement being negotiated between the Philippines and Japan is part of the U.S. plan to bring more soldiers here in Asia and solidify its hold on the region,” she added, warning that more foreign troops in the Philippines could bring the country on the brink of war.
Concluding his remarks, Kishida headed to the headquarters of the Philippine Coast Guard, which earlier in the day hosted Adm. Shohei Ishii, the head of the Japanese Coast Guard. He then embarked on a flight to Malaysia for an official visit.
The Philippine Department of National Defense will also receive a grant of 600 million yen (U.S. $4.02 million) to purchase coastal radars as the first project under Japan’s newly launched Official Security Assistance (OSA) funds.
The country also acquired 12 multi-role response vessels from Japan, which are now deployed to patrol along the archipelago’s shoreline.
Japan will also provide aid grants worth U.S. $6 million to purchase trucks, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment to repair transport networks and infrastructure damaged by natural disasters in Bangsamoro, an autonomous Filipino region predominantly inhabited by Muslims and marked by conflicts between militants and the military.
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.