Deal comes as regional allies forge closer ties to counter China’s aggressive behaviorToko Sekiguchi, Wall Street Journal
5 June 2015
TOKYO – The Japanese government is providing more maritime equipment to its neighbors, as part of moves by
U.S. regional allies to forge closer security ties in response to China’s aggressive behavior in the Western Pacific.
On Thursday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who is on a state visit to Japan this week, signed a deal with a Japanese shipbuilder to buy a fleet of 10 patrol vessels. Tokyo will provide a low-interest loan worth ¥19 billion ($150 million) to pay for the ships, marking a significant shift in Japan’s foreign aid program focused until now on infrastructure projects.
The purchase of the 44-meter boats from Tokyo-based Japan Marine United will sharply enhance the capacity of the Philippines’ Coast Guard, which has been under pressure from increased Chinese activities in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews visited Kobe on Thursday, surveying shipyards of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries – makers of advanced submarines. Australia is looking to upgrade its submarine fleet and currently is in discussion with Japan, Germany and France for a possible joint development.
Australia is one of Japan’s closest allies, ranking just below the U.S. The sale of submarines became possible after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe relaxed Japan’s stringent weapon-export rules last year.
As parliament debates Mr. Abe’s controversial legislative package aimed at loosening strict limits on the military’s role, Japan is transitioning from a pacifist ally of the U.S. to a more active military presence regionally. Already, Mr. Abe has eased the country’s development aid policies, as well as weapons export rules.
As territorial tensions with Beijing have flared in both the South and East China seas, Mr. Abe has also beefed up Japan’s diplomatic engagement with allies in the region.
Standing next to Mr. Aquino Thursday, Mr. Abe said they had “thorough discussions” about regional peace and stability, especially China’s attempt to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. “We confirmed that we share serious concern about large-scale land reclamation and that we oppose any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo,” Mr. Abe said.
The two leaders also agreed to begin talks for a defense equipment and technology transfer agreement, making Philippines the second Southeast Asian country for Japan to consider such a pact after Malaysia. The Malaysian deal was unveiled by Mr. Abe and Prime Minister Razak Najib last week during his visit to Japan.
Manila and Beijing have a continuing dispute over Scarborough Shoal, leading to a two-month standoff in 2012 with trade quarantines and tourist suspensions by China. The incident signified how thin the Philippine Coast Guard was stretched, lacking both the hardware and manpower to patrol its territories, experts say.
Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Philippines’ Western Command, said his country was looking
to its allies in the region to supply used equipment cheaply, or free of charge. “In the midterm we don’t have the funds to buy new equipment for things like maritime domain awareness,” he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore on Saturday.
Earlier in the year, Japan announced its development aid will become available to aid foreign militaries engaged in noncombat operations. Japan has donated new and used coast guard patrol boats to Indonesia and Vietnam so far. The JMU patrol boats to the Philippines will be the largest of such aid, scheduled to be delivered from late 2016, along with training by Japanese coast guard officials.
“Japan is one of the few states that possess superior naval power in the region,” said Isami Takeda, a maritime security expert at Dokkyo Univeristy in Tokyo. “It’s a positive move for Japan-resulting in freer naval passage for Japanese ships, and deterring China from taking advantage of the weakness of Philippines’ coast guard capabilities.”
While security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations tend to be one-sided with Japan as the donor nation, it is also looking to add Australia to a short list of nations Japan could come to aid militarily should it find itself under attack by a hostile nation.
Although Australia is also considering Germany and France for the joint submarine development, defense experts say that sharing technology platforms with regional allies would be beneficial when dealing with a common threat. Japan will be taking part in a joint amphibious military exercise with Australia, U.S. and New Zealand for the first time next month.
“Each country develops its own submarines independently,” saysYoji Koda, a retired vice admiral and an adviser to National Security Secretariat. “Suppose Japan and Australia use more or less the same submarines, operational planning using submarines would become drastically easier and efficient.”
Mitsuru Obe in Tokyo and Trefor Moss in Manila contributed to this article.