Japan, Philippines on verge of VFA defense pact

By Richard Javad Heydarian

The historic meeting among leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea last week at Camp David has been hailed as a “new milestone” in the burgeoning trilateral alliance.

For the first time in contemporary history, leaders from the three nations are set to hold an official joint summit, underscoring the Biden administration’s success in soothing historic tensions between its two key East Asian allies.

But while the world has been transfixed by the budding potential for a powerful trilateral alliance, which could be central to the success of America’s China strategy, another vital trilateral alliance is more quietly taking shape.

This week, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo effectively confirmed long-running speculation about a possible new defense pact between Japan and the Philippines.

During a congressional hearing on the latest tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines’ diplomatic chief acknowledged that a new Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) is in the works with a key Asian partner “near China.”

Shortly after, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr met a top representative from the KomeitoParty, a key partner in Japan’s ruling coalition, to reiterate his commitment to upgrading already-robust bilateral ties to new heights.

Manila reportedly seeks to transform its economics-heavy ties with Tokyo into a full-fledged alliance. Deepening military cooperation between the two Asian nations is also part of a broader emerging trilateral alliance between Japan, Philippines and the US (JAPHUS), which will be central to the Biden administration’s “integrated deterrence” strategy in the Indo-Pacific, especially over Taiwan.

Beyond America

Since coming to power, President Marcos Jr has endeavored to advance a new foreign policy doctrine. On one hand, he has doubled down on the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was negotiated under the Benigno Aquino III administration.

As a result, the US Pentagon is set to enjoy unprecedented access to prized Philippine military facilities, especially those close to both Taiwan and the South China Sea, in the entire post-Cold War period.

At the same time, however, Marcos Jr has also tried to build on the legacy of the Rodrigo Duterte administration, which tried to pivot to rising powers across the non-Western world, most notably China and Russia.

This week, for instance, Marcos Jr personally met the incoming ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Yousef Esmaeilzadeh, to explore strategic cooperation including in areas such as food security.

“The Philippines now is continuing to foster new partnerships between what we have come to call non-traditional partners.,” Marcos Jr told his Iranian guest at the Malacañang Palace. In the past, Iran served as a major energy supplier to the Philippines, but the reimposition of US sanctions has disrupted a once-booming bilateral relationship.

More significantly, however, Marcos Jr is also expanding relations with other fellow US allies, most notably Japan, which has historically been a top source of investments and development aid.

Both his immediate predecessors, Aquino and Duterte, actively pursued a comprehensive alliance with Japan. The same is true for the Philippine legislature, where there is bipartisan support for more robust defense ties with the Asian power.

“We’re [now] so close now to Japan, and remember Japan was once upon a time an enemy of the Philippines, but now we’re so close that I even told the Japanese Ambassador [in Manila]: ‘You’re in the Philippines, serving in the Philippines, in one of the best times because you’re now almost at par with the US [in terms of overall strategic relations]’” Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez told Asia Times earlier this year.

Following Marcos Jr’s trip to Tokyo earlier this year, shortly after his state visit to Beijing, the two sides have stepped up their efforts to secure a new major defense pact.

“We are considering other possible similar arrangements with other friendly partners for countries who wish to do so. And in fact, we are in discussion now with one country, a major partner near China,” Philippine foreign affairs secretary Enrique Manalo told lawmakers this week, without openly mentioning Japan.

“We are in discussion with them for a similar arrangement. There are some technical details but the whole idea is to forge a stronger relationship,” Manalo added, raising certain hopes in Manila that a new VFA with Japan is now in the works.

New era of cooperation

Last June, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) held its first-ever trilateral exercises with Japanese and American counterparts in the Philippines.

This was part of broader efforts at enhancing interoperability among the three allied nations amid rising tensions in the region.

Recently, Embassy of Japan charges d’affaires Matsuda Kenichi reiterated that Tokyo is committed to “concretely” advancing maritime security cooperation with the Philippines.

Despite Japan’s historical atrocities during World War II, there seems to be much more broad-based elite support for a VFA with Japan than with Western powers such as Australia or the US, who secured similar defense arrangements with Manila in the past amid strong domestic opposition.

Influential Filipino politicians including Senate President Miguel Zubiri have openly called for a Philippine-Japan VFA, which will ultimately require ratification by the Philippine legislature.

“Japan is an ally, and with ongoing territorial disputes over our waters, we stand to benefit from stronger security cooperation with our allies,’’ the Philippine Senate leader said earlier this year.

“Japan is already offering vital support to our coast guard, not just through vessels and equipment but also through other capacity-building opportunities such as training…[so a] VFA will strengthen our partnership even further,’’ he added.

Should the two sides finalize a VFA with broad bipartisan support in Manila, it would allow the two sides to dramatically expand joint military drills, defense equipment exchanges and even potential joint operations during contingencies.

During his meeting with Japan’s Komeito Party representative, Marcos Jr emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation to “preserving the peace and allowing the free conduct of trade and shipping in the South China Sea,” while reiterating his commitment to enhancing trilateral cooperation in tandem with the US.

“I refer to the trilateral agreements that we have been talking about and have started to implement in terms of joint patrols, in terms of joint exercises for the two maritime forces of Japan and the Philippines,” Marcos Jr said.

Deepening concerns over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems to have accelerated the emerging JAPHUS alliance. Both the Philippines and Japan have military bases close to Taiwan’s shores, making them extremely crucial to America’s ability to deter any Chinese invasion of the self-governing island.

Direct military coordination between Manila and Tokyo, therefore, is sine qua non to the Pentagon’s contingency plans for defending Taiwan. Although top Filipino leaders have expressed “neutrality”, both Marcos Jr and his top defense officials have emphasized the importance of deterrence and preparing for a potential conflict in nearby Taiwan.

During his recent trip to Taipei, former Japanese prime minister Taro Aso became the latest top leader to emphasize how Taiwan’s future is inextricably linked to Japan’s own national security.

“The most important thing now is to make sure that war doesn’t break out in the Taiwan Strait,” Aso, vice president of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said during his recent trip to Taiwan.

“I believe that now is the time for Japan, Taiwan, the United States and other like-minded countries to be prepared to put into action very strong deterrence,” he said while emphasizing the need for regional allies to display “the resolve to fight” if necessary.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Richeydarian