maritime security

Philippines-Japan RAA: What is it and why now? 

Bea Cupin

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Philippines-Japan RAA: What is it and why now? 

COOPERATION. On 16 June 2024, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF) JS KIRISAME, together with counterparts from the Philippine Navy, U.S. Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy, affirmed their commitment to strengthen regional and international cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific during the multilateral Maritime Cooperative Activity (MCA) in the South China Sea.

Embassy of Japan

(2nd UPDATE) The deal – negotiated in record time – will be signed on July 8, just as Manila and Tokyo's foreign and defense ministers meet for the second time ever in the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines and Japan are expected to sign on Monday, July 8, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), a deal that would allow the armed forces of the two Asian countries to train – and possibly operate – better and closer with each other.

Malacañang Palace formally announced that the agreement would be signed on July 8, in a statement released by the Presidential Communication Office late Sunday, July 7. Japanese Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko and Defense Minister Kihara Minoru will be calling on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on the same day. 

Marcos himself will witness the signing of the agreement. 

What’s in an RAA and why does this matter to the Philippines and Japan?

Talk about a “Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)-like” deal with Japan under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. started after the latter official’s visit to Tokyo in February 2023. But months before Marcos took office, in April 2022, the two countries made a “commitment” to an RAA during the first 2+2 bilateral ministerial meeting in Tokyo. 

Shortly after Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s visit to Manila in November 2023, formal negotiations for the RAA finally started.

By December 2023, right after a trip to Tokyo for the Commemorative Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Japan Summit, Marcos said he and Kishida agreed that negotiations should be finalized “ASAP… yesterday, if not sooner.”

Although its signing was initially projected to take place in the first quarter of 2024, a July 2024 conclusion would still make it a quick negotiation for both countries.

The RAA is close to but not exactly like the VFA, an agreement signed in 1999 between the Philippines and the United States.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. would “allow Japan to come into the country to conduct training… and vice versa,” as well as allow the Philippine military and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to “conduct actual military operations.”

Without an agreement, bilateral military engagements were generally limited to expert exchanges and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.

Once the RAA is in place – that is, after it is approved by the Philippine Senate and ratified by Japan’s Diet – the JSDF would be able to participate in bilateral or multilateral military exercises in the Philippines, and vice versa.

It could also pave the way for the creation of a bilateral military exercise between the Philippines and Japan, Manila’s one-time colonizer.

Agreements like the RAA or the VFA dictate the terms on which troops from either country enter and operate in a host country – including if a visiting soldier is accused of committing a crime in a host country.

Japan has existing RAAs with only two other countries – Australia and the United Kingdom. The Philippines, meanwhile, has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia on top of its VFA with the US.

Why the RAA now?

The expected signing of the RAA between Manila and Tokyo takes place as Japan’s Defense Minister Kihara Minoru and Foreign Minister Kamikawa Yoko visit Manila for the second-ever 2+2 meeting with their Philippine counterparts.

Japan’s Ambassador to Manila Endo Kazuya, speaking to the media on the sidelines of the JSDF’s anniversary celebration, said the meeting is hoped to “further strengthen the security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines, which has been growing very rapidly over the recent years.”

It also comes as superpower China grows more aggressive in flashpoints like Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal or the Senkaku Islands, maritime features administered by the Philippines and Japan, respectively. During a trilateral leaders’ meeting in Washington, DC in April 2024, the US, Japan, and Philippines expressed “serious concern” over China’s actions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Joshua Espeña, vice president of Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation, said the RAA is part of Japan’s efforts to play a more “proactive security role in the Indo-Pacific” – a move that began in 2010, under the late Shinzo Abe.

“Japan needs access to partner states like the Philippines to sustain littoral operations of the defense of its Southwestern islands like Okinawa down to Taiwan and Luzon Straits to the West Philippine Sea belt area,” he said, while emphasizing that China’s broad range of options – submarines, surface vessels, amphibious capabilities, and offensive conventional missile strike capabilities – could “prove as a challenge to the Japanese forces.”

Still, Espeña said the Philippines’ security sector “stands to gain from the RAA” as it develops and operationalizes the Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept (CADC).

“CADC means the Philippine archipelago is secure if it can defend itself while working with partners like Tokyo to secure the fringes of what Manila cannot secure in itself. The implication though is that Tokyo and Washington need linkages and enablers, hence the RAA,” he said.

Japan and the Philippines have been strategic partners since 2011. The RAA builds on these ties, developed over a course of several administrations, including Marcos’ immediate predecessors the late Benigno Aquino III and Rodrigo Duterte. 

The RAA is certainly not Japan’s only big-time agreement with the Philippines in the arena of defense and security. Most of the Philippine Coast Guard’s newest vessels were acquired through a marine safety capability improvement project funded by Japan.

The PCG, among the frontline agencies in documenting and resisting China’s incursions, is set to acquire five more 97-meter patrol vessels under Phase III of the project. Manila has also been the recipient of Japan’s mobile air surveillance radar system and is the pioneering recipient of Japan’s Official Security Assistance.

The signing of the RAA – and its expected ratification before the legislatures of both countries – also means that the Philippines would have military agreements with all three members of the so-called SQUAD, a quadrilateral group that includes the Philippines, United States, Japan, and Australia. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.