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Philippines, Japan moving in ‘general direction’ of VFA-like agreement – Romualdez

Sofia Tomacruz

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Philippines, Japan moving in ‘general direction’ of VFA-like agreement – Romualdez

SUMMIT. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, reviews honor guards at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on February 9, 2023.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool/Reuters

Speaker Martin Romualdez says that the prospective military deal was raised in 'broad strokes' during a bilateral summit between President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

TOKYO, Japan – Speaker Martin Romualdez said that the Philippines and Japan are moving in the “general direction” of entering into a military deal that would allow their troops to conduct joint drills and access military bases in the Philippines.

Romualdez, a cousin of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., was among Philippine government officials who traveled with the President for his ongoing five-day official visit to Japan.

“That’s the general direction…. We’re all in the same region and we’re all experiencing the same issues and concerns,” Romualdez told reporters in an interview Friday night, February 10.

Prior to landing in Tokyo, Marcos told reporters that formal negations on a reciprocal access agreement or military deal similar to the Philippines and United States’ Visiting Forces Agreement had yet to start, but that he wanted to see closer security ties with Japan as part of efforts to boost security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Romualdez backed the Philippine leader’s position, saying, “When it comes to peace, stability, we all know that kailangan talaga may (there should be) security arrangements.”

The Philippines and Japan first explored the idea of entering into a visiting forces treaty that would allow Japanese military access to the country’s military bases in 2015. At the time, the Aquino administration cited the need for such an agreement with Japan as both countries faced an aggressive China.

‘Work in progress’

Asked if Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida raised the issue with Marcos during a bilateral summit on Thursday, February 9, Romualdez said the prospect of a military agreement was raised in “broad strokes.”

“Yes, well broad strokes. There’s a general understanding that that’s the direction, but always founded on the fact that it’s to usher in an environment of peace and stability, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

During Marcos’ visit, the Philippines and Japan signed the terms of reference on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Japan Self-Defense Forces, which paved the way for joint exercises and drills between the countries’ forces on this front.

While focused on disaster relief, regional analysts and observers see the effort as moving one step closer to a reciprocal military access agreement since it involved procedures that a similar military access deal would cover.

This includes settling on the number of Japanese troops that would participate in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, as well as their legal status while in the Philippines. 

Asked if a timeline had been discussed to start formal negotiations on the prospective deal, Romualdez said the effort remained a “work in progress.”

“There are always conversations along those lines and the lines of communication are very, very wide open especially after the visit,” he said.

Stronger security cooperation

Prior to arriving in Tokyo, Marcos pointed to security ties with Japan as an area both countries wanted to fortify. “I’m sure that Japan wants to develop and make even more robust, closer our relationship especially in that regard,” Marcos said.

The two countries have stepped up maritime cooperation in recent years, with Japan playing an active role in bolstering the Philippine Coast Guard’s (PCG) capabilities. Ships donated by Japan to the PCG have been used to patrol the West Philippine Sea, where China continued to assert its claims in Philippine waters despite an international ruling that struck down its actions as illegal.

On the sidelines of Marcos’ visit, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. met with his counterpart, Japanese Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada, who gave a briefing on Japan’s new National Security Strategy.

While in Japan, Marcos and Kishida committed to continuing bilateral security consultations through their “2+2” defense and foreign affairs ministerial meeting, first convened in 2022.

The two leaders also agreed on the transfer of defense equipment from Japanese to Philippine forces, increase strategic port calls and aircraft visits, and beef up cooperation on cybersecurity and economic security. Marcos and Kishida also said they wanted to see the completion of air surveillance radars systems from Japan to the Philippines.

Once finalized, Japan will be the third country to hold a status of forces agreement with the Philippines. The Philippines has visiting forces agreements with the US and Australia, whose troops regularly come to the Philippines for military exercises, among other activities. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.