An enduring Japan-Philippines strategic partnership

PRESIDENT BENIGNO C. AQUINO III receives a Topographical Map of Mindanao from Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe on July 27, 2013. — MALACAÑANG PHOTO BUREAU

On July 13, the foreign secretaries of the Philippines and Japan reaffirmed the strategic partnership between the two countries following the first Philippines-Japan Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting or 2+2 in Tokyo earlier this year.

Under various government leaderships, diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Japan have remained strong since its establishment in 1956.

The agreement to elevate the relations to a “strengthened strategic partnership” was made in June 2015 under the administration of the late Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This will be further reaffirmed as President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Recognizing the emergence of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, the strategic partnership focuses on cooperation in achieving the shared vision of peace, stability, and economic growth. The mutual concerns in the region, particularly in the maritime sector, have continued to push the Philippines and Japan to foster cooperation and strengthen their partnership. The latest economic initiatives between the Philippines and Japan demonstrate their enduring alliance.

The 2020 Official Development Assistance Portfolio Review Report of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) lists Japan as the top contributor of official development assistance (ODA) in the Philippines, with $11.2 billion (36.4%) worth of loans and grants. Moreover, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) records Japan as the second top major export trading partner of the Philippines as of July 2022, at $903.62 million (14.5%).

At the April 2+2 Meeting in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa spoke of Prime Minister Kishida’s statement that the relations between the two countries are in their “golden age.” This is attributed mainly to the infrastructure cooperation where projects worth one trillion yen (approximately P401 billion) have already been completed since 2017. Currently, the two countries have a loan agreement valued at 253.3 billion yen (approximately P112.1 billion) for the Metro Manila Subway Project Phase 1, which is crucial to the country’s economic recovery.

The public health crisis also brought an opportunity for deeper cooperation between the two countries. Japan was one of the major sources of assistance during the critical first year of the COVID-19 pandemic through its provision of medical equipment and other important resources.

Aside from the growing economic ties and pandemic assistance, the strategic partnership is also founded on the shared value of a rules-based international order, particularly on the issue of maritime territorial disputes that both countries confront.

In the case of the West Philippine Sea, Japan proved itself a consistent supporter of the Philippines. On the 6th anniversary of the Arbitral Ruling that favored the Philippines in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan stated that the award is treated as final and legally binding. Tokyo urged China and the Philippines to comply with it. In this context, continuous support from the international community is crucial in asserting the country’s sovereign rights in its territory.

The sustained initiatives between the two countries have also placed Japan as one of the most trusted countries by Filipinos (at 78%), as reflected in the Social Weather Stations survey commissioned by the Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute in June.

The late Prime Minister Abe was largely responsible for the Philippines’ stable and dynamic partnership with Japan. As a global leader, he laid the groundwork for continued cooperation on economic and defense fronts as part of his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The strategic partnership of the two countries, as key players in the region, serves as a pillar in fostering multilateral and inclusive cooperation.

Abe’s initiatives at the multilateral and bilateral levels became a strong foundation for building trust among states and set the stage for enduring partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. This was demonstrated by his founding role in the influential Quad partnership in 2006 and its revival in 2017 with the United States, Australia, and India.

Beyond his resignation from office in 2020 and his passing in July this year, Abe’s lasting legacy in global and regional affairs is demonstrated by the consistent advancement and promotion of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. His exceptional leadership at the international level contributed to the realization that the peace and prosperity of the region is a shared responsibility among states.

Recognizing the need to collectively manage the Indo-Pacific’s current security landscape, states have continued to maximize their roles through their respective foreign policy strategies that also reflect Abe’s vision of a free and open region. The international community has high regard and admiration for his contributions to the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the strategic partnership between the Philippines and Japan.

With Abe’s untimely death, the greatest tribute that world leaders can pay to the late prime minister is to carry on his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. This will be made possible by enhancing connectivity as well as strengthening strategic partnerships and alliances in the region based on fundamental principles such as the rule of law and freedom of navigation.

In pursuing an independent foreign policy, the Philippines must draw on its long-standing strategic partnership with Japan and other like-minded states to conclusively contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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