Turning over a new leaf in Japan–Philippines relations

Author: Richard Javad Heydarian, De La Salle University

Historically, the United States has been the Philippines’ leading ally. Under a series of landmark agreements Washington served as the de facto guarantor of Philippine national security for almost a century. But in recent years Japan has rapidly upgraded its security cooperation with Manila. Today, Japan is the Philippines’ top provider of development aid, leading trading partner, leading foreign investor, and, next to the United States, a major source of maritime security assistance. And just recently, the two Asian countries inked a defence agreement that allows Tokyo to supply Manila military technology and equipment, such as surveillance aircraft. The Philippines is the third country, and the first in Southeast Asia, to have signed such agreement with Japan.

Japan's Emperor Akihito with Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, 27 January 2016. (Photo: AAP)

Japan also enjoys the most favourable rating (at 81 per cent) of all Asian countries among the Filipino public, far ahead of South Korea (68 per cent), China (54 per cent) and India (48 per cent). Yet the blossoming of Philippine–Japanese relations is not without controversy.

The Philippines was among the biggest victims of Japanese imperial aggression during World War II. Aside from the issue of war reparations, many Filipinos have also raised concerns over the perceived ‘historical revisionism’ of the Shinzo Abe administration, which is pursuing a more proactive foreign and defence policy in Asia. The recent visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito to the Philippines should be seen in this context of both burgeoning bilateral security relations and lingering suspicions over the Abe administration’s commitment to pacifism.

Emperor Akihito’s visit to Manila earlier this year was the first by a reigning Japanese monarch. The last time he was in the Philippines was in the early 1960s when Akihito was still crown prince. Then, he sought to facilitate postwar reconciliation between the two countries, as Japan and the Philippines explored a new roadmap for regional development and peace.

Throughout the decades, Emperor Akihito — whose reign is termed Heisei, ‘achieving peace’, in Japanese — has consistently expressed his country’s commitment to remembering the past. Since 2005, he has embarked on a so-called ‘peace tour’, visiting Palau, Saipan and Iwo Jima, the site of major clashes between Imperial Japanese and American forces during World War II.

His visit to the Philippines was highly symbolic, since the Southeast Asian country was where Japan suffered the highest number of casualties outside continental Asia. The Philippines was also the site of widespread atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial army against Filipino citizens, including horrific stories of systematic rape and murder.

The Emperor’s visit was seen as an effort to reiterate the contrition, remorse and regret of Japanese people about the events of the past. Yet, since the Emperor is only the ‘symbol of the state’, he carried no specific administrative mandate to sign any binding agreement between Japan and the Philippines. Still his visit, his statements and his decision to pay his respects at the National Heroes cemetery in Manila during the high-profile trip were unmistakably part of a broader effort to dispel fears of ‘militarisation’ and ‘historical revisionism’ in Japan.

In light of Japan’s recent decision to provide reparations directly to former ‘comfort women’ in South Korea there were hopes that the Emperor would bring along a similar initiative for the surviving victims in the Philippines. But this did not eventuate. Japanese officials contend that the issue of reparations has already been settled on a state-to-state level under the 1951 San Francisco Peace treaty, while a private initiative, the Asian Women’s Fund, has provided reparations to as many as 211 Filipino comfort women over the years.

The Philippine government did not push the issue. Its priorities lie in upgrading bilateral security and economic cooperation with Tokyo. On the economic front, Japan is expected to play an even more pivotal role in revamping the Southeast Asian country’s infrastructure landscape. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) recently proposed a US$57 billion ‘Dream Plan’ to address Metro Manila’s notorious traffic congestion and public transportation conundrum.

Under the ‘China Plus One Strategy’, the Philippines has become the leading destination for Japanese manufacturing investments in Southeast Asia. There are huge expectations that Japan will play a key role in steering the Philippines’ services-oriented economy towards a more manufacturing- and export-oriented one.

The two countries are also bound by geopolitical ties. Amid China’s rising maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, the Philippines and Japan have rapidly upgraded their security relations, with Tokyo poised to provide military aid to enhance Manila’s maritime security posture in the South China Sea. Today, the Philippines is among the few countries that have vocally supported a growing security role for Japan in the region, ostensibly as a counterbalance to China.

As part of this new security posture the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces has been contemplating the possibility of conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed waters, while the Philippines has contemplated the prospect of granting Japanese troops access to its military bases.

While points of disagreement remain, Japan and the Philippines seem committed to transcending their historical baggage in favour of a more robust strategic partnership.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at De La Salle University, Manila.

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