Japanese warplanes in Philippines for first time since WW2

By Richard Javad Heydarian

Two weeks ago, the Philippines and Japan marked another major milestone in their blossoming security partnership. For the first time since the end of World War II, which saw Imperial Japanese forces brutally occupying the Southeast Asian country, Japanese warplanes landed in the Philippines.

Two F-15s from Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), along with a refueling aircraft and a transport airplane, landed at Clark Air Base in the northern Philippines amid much fanfare.

During the Cold War, Clark along with a naval facility in nearby Subic served as the site for America’s largest overseas military bases.

The JASDF forces are joining 60 colleagues that have been taking part in a special exchange program with Philippine Air Force (PAF) counterparts from November 27 to December 11.

Filipino military officials wasted no time in underscoring the relevance of the highly symbolic moment.

Colonel Leo Fontanilla, a PAF commander, vowed that the two sides would continue to work “hand in hand” in order “to advance our friendship and partnership and to strengthen both our air forces to effectively and efficiently sustain peace and stability in our region.”

On his part, the Philippine Air Force’s commanding general, Lieutenant-General Connor Anthony Canlas, earlier welcomed the historic visit by Japanese warplanes, the first in postwar period, as a sign that the former enemies “are now our allies” who share a common interest in a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific region.

Back in 2018, the two countries marked another major milestone in their bilateral relations when Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) deployed, for the first time in the postwar period, an armored-vehicle unit to join in the Philippine-US Balikatan war games, where Japanese and Australia forces are regular participants.

In October this year, the Philippines also hosted members of the JSDF as part of the Kamandag, or Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea, multilateral exercises, along with troops from other allied nations of the United States as well as South Korea.

And thus the Philippines, once a marginal player in regional affairs, has increasingly become the “pivot state” in the Indo-Pacific region. Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has rapidly restored frayed ties with traditional allies, the Southeast Asian country has become indispensable to Washington’s “integrated deterrence” strategy in the region.


Perturbed by China’s growing assertiveness in adjacent waters, and eager to respond to renewed uncertainties following Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, the Philippines and Japan have pursued a more comprehensive partnership that transcends historical enmities and traditional linkages.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has sought to regain the trust of Southeast Asian neighbors such as the Philippines through a wave of trade, aid, and big-ticket investments.

In the early 1960s, Tokyo backed Manila’s bid to host the Japan-financed Asian Development Bank (ADB), the largest intergovernmental financial institution in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus the Philippines became pivotal to Japan’s regional development strategy, which enhanced the Northeast Asian country’s industrialization drive as well as soft power across Southeast Asia.

Over the succeeding decades, Japan also cemented its position as the largest source of overseas development assistance (ODA) to as well as a top investor and leading export destination for the Philippines.

In fact, the total value of Japan’s new infrastructure projects alone (US$29 billion), which include Metro Manila’s first subway metro as well as a North-South Commuter Railway project in the industrialized Luzon region, dwarfs that of China ($8 billion).

To deepen trade and investment ties, the two countries have also signed the Japan- Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), the Philippines’ first and most consequential bilateral free trade agreement.

By and large, Japan enjoys full-spectrum support among major elite factions in the Philippines, including former president Rodrigo Duterte, who maintained decades-long cordial ties with the Japanese Consulate in the southern city of Davao.

On one hand, then-Philippine president Benigno Aquino III actively pursued closer strategic ties with Japan, which embraced new foreign-policy activism under prime minister Shinzo Abe, in order to check China’s creeping encroachment into Philippine waters.

Aquino’s successor Duterte, who consciously pivoted away from Western partners in favor of Beijing and Moscow, further deepened strategic ties with Japan as part of his “independent” foreign-policy thrust.

While reformist Filipino presidents such as Aquino viewed Japan as a major fellow democracy and US ally, authoritarian populists such as Duterte saw the Northeast Asian country as an alternative power to the West. The upshot was a steady and substantial uptick in bilateral strategic cooperation, which has now extended into defense affairs.

This year, the two countries conducted their the first-ever “2+2” meeting of their top defense and foreign-policy officials. In their joint statement, the Philippines and Japan “underscored the importance of each country’s respective treaty alliance with the United States and that of enhancing cooperation with regional partner countries.” They also vowed to “strengthen defense cooperation in light of the increasingly harsh security environment.”

Maritime security has a been a centerpiece of the burgeoning Philippine-Japan alliance. Over the past decade, Japan has donated patrol vessels and surveillance aircraft to enhance the Philippines’ intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities in the South China Sea.


As if that weren’t enough, Japan is also now negotiating a new defense deal, specifically a reciprocal access agreement to facilitate sustained, robust and increasingly sophisticated joint military activities between the two sides.

Known as Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSAs), the proposed pact could see Japan emerging as the third major defense partner for the Philippines after the United States, which has a Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila, and Australia, which has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) with it.

Given Japan’s proximity and vast resources, a major defense deal could make the Northeast Asian country the other big ally of the Philippines, aside from the US. But that would require the approval of the Philippine Senate, which has the prerogative over new treaty agreements, as well as further reinterpretation, if not revision, of the Japanese pacifist constitution.

Though this seems like a tall order, rising tensions over Taiwan could expedite the blossoming security ties between Japan and the Philippines. Historically, both US allies have tried to avoid entanglement over the Taiwan issue by reiterating their “one China” policies. But things have been changing rapidly in recent years, with Japan recently expressing more categorical support for the self-ruling island in an event of a Chinese invasion in the near future.

Last year, the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who dramatically reshaped Japan’s postwar foreign policy, openly declared, “A Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan. In other words, it is also a contingency for the Japan-US alliance. [And] people in Beijing, particularly President Xi Jinping, should not misjudge that.”

On its part, the Philippines under Marcos Jr has also indicated its openness to assist US military intervention in an event of conflict in Taiwan. In particular, the Southeast Asian country has expressed its openness to avail its northernmost naval bases, which are perched just over a hundred nautical miles from Taiwanese shores, to American forces.

The deepening Philippine-Japan defense cooperation, therefore, is both driven by and responsive to the proximate crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Even short of amending its pacifist constitution, Japan can, under its “collective self-defense” doctrine, aid any joint military intervention in the First Island Chain, which extends from the East China Sea to the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

Growing military interoperability between Washington’s oldest East Asian allies, therefore, is pivotal to the Pentagon’s ability to prevent China’s full domination of the South China Sea as well as credibly deter any Chinese occupation of Taiwan.

Recognizing the broader significance of deepening Philippine-Japan security partnership, China’s nationalist mouthpiece, The Global Times, warned against any “actions [that] may add more insecurity and instability” in the region.

“The US also hopes that Japan can find a foothold around the South China Sea to rest and resupply, so as to better assist the US military to carry out various military operations,” the state-backed newspaper added.