Philippines-Japan relations

View from Manila: What the Philippines gets out of an RAA with Japan 

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: What the Philippines gets out of an RAA with Japan 

The Philippines and Japan sign the Reciprocal Access Agreement in Malacañang on Monday, July 8.

Photo from Presidential Communications Office

Defense and foreign ministers from Japan and the Philippines discuss the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula during a meeting in Manila

MANILA, Philippines – Five days before the anniversary of the 2016 Arbitral Ruling, Manila and Tokyo signed on Monday, July 8, an agreement that paves the way for joint exercises and activities and makes it easier for the two militaries to work together.

Foreign and defense ministers of the Philippines and Japan, in Manila for the second 2+2 bilateral ministerial meeting, used a range of superlatives to describe the landmark Reciprocal Access Agreement.  

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said the agreement “brings our defense partnership to an unprecedented height.” Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said it would “put flesh into our already strong and robust bilateral relations.” 

Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Kamikawa Yoko said the RAA would be the basis to advance bilateral collaboration, and strengthen capability-building. Japan Defense Minister Kihara Minoru said it was a “groundbreaking” deal that would “enhance cooperation” between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

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

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

They’re not exaggerating. The RAA, after all, was negotiated in record time. 

It took five years for Japan to negotiate its RAA with the United Kingdom. The RAA with Australia (with whom the Philippines has a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with) took seven years. 

The RAA with Manila? It took all of eight months – from formal negotiations in November 2023 until line-by-line readings on June 11. A month later, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was host and witness to the document’s signing in Malacañang Palace. 

Manalo was quick to praise the “hard work and dedication of our competent negotiators” in the closing press conference to cap off the RAA signing, separate defense and foreign affairs bilateral meetings, and the 2+2 meeting at a posh hotel in Taguig City.

The Philippine foreign secretary offered the media a glimpse of the hard word that went into crafting the 31 pages of the agreement. “Not only did they meet to discuss this or to negotiate the agreement face to face, they also had late night meetings. They also negotiated by Zoom,” he added. 

It helped that two other RAAs preceded it, of course. But Manalo honed in on a “basic agreement” – that for both Manila and Tokyo, the RAA was important. 

“At the strategic level, both Japan and the Philippines recognize the importance of this agreement. So I think that was a basic understanding from the very beginning, so that also helped facilitate the negotiations,” he added. 

Philippine government sources earlier told Rappler that Tokyo wanted the RAA more than Manila. But the urgency (and eagerness) from both sides was palpable. 

Defense and security officials in the Philippines had been expecting to sign the agreement in the third quarter of 2024 (which would have meant less than six months of negotiations). The signing date was eventually pushed by a quarter, apparently over touchy provisions. Manalo called them “difficult issues” that were eventually ironed out “due to the skill of our negotiators.” 

“[They] were able to come up with some very useful compromises both in language and also in the substance of the text. So they were able to handle the difficult questions,” Manalo added.

What’s the basic understanding that pushed both countries? Instability in different regions across the globe, and China’s growing aggression in our own Indo-Pacific. 

“Amidst the background of the geopolitical situation in this and other regions, which has put the stability and predictability of the rules-based international order under stress, we discussed global and regional issues of common concern,” said Manalo of the 2+2 meeting.

During the joint bilateral meeting, the Philippines and Japan discussed, among other things, issues related to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and nuclear disarmament.  

Just two weeks prior, the world witnessed the worst escalation of tensions in the West Philippine Sea, when China Coast Guard personnel towed, boarded, and destroyed Philippine Navy equipment during a Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal. Japan’s ministers either alluded to or made explicit mention of China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea during the July 8 briefing. 

“If the Philippines and Japan – and other partners – are going to collectively deter China,  it needs enablers to sustain it, hence the RAA,” Joshua Espeña, vice president of the International Development and Security Cooperation and a lecturer at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, told Rappler. 

Espeña explained that Japan knows it needs like-minded countries to possibly “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.” 

It’s a win for the Philippines, too, as it finalizes and tries to operationalize its Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept and shifts focus to external defense.

Already – and as expected – China did not react too warmly to the signing of the RAA. Its foreign minister spokesperson Lin Jian said in a press conference on July 8 that the “Asia-Pacific region does not need any military bloc, still less groupings that incite bloc confrontation or a new Cold War.”

“Japan bears serious historical responsibilities for its aggression and colonial rule over the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries during WWII. Japan needs to reflect on that part of history and act prudently in fields related to military and security,” Lin Jian added.

Lin is right about the painful history of the Japanese occupation in the Philippines. Both Manila and Tokyo have yet to offer the deserved reparations to World War II comfort women in the Philippines, for instance.

But he (deliberately, perhaps) skipped the sustained strong bilateral ties between the Philippines and Japan through the years amid swings in Philippine politics. Tokyo has proven to be a consistent and reliable part for Manila – be it in upgrading security and defense capabilities, working on peace in the Bangsamoro, or the economy.

The Philippine Coast Guard’s newest vessels were acquired from and through Japan, the Philippine military’s newest mobile air surveillance radar system are from Japan, and Manila is the first ever recipient of its Official Development Assistance.

“Manila finds Tokyo’s consistency as a political capital not just to accept they are no longer the demons of the days of the Second World War, but possibly as a guardian angel of today’s Indo-Pacific,” said Espeña. 

The 2+2 meeting wasn’t just about defense and security, of course.

Manalo, without going into specifics, said the two countries “agreed to further deepen economic cooperation and enhance our ability to react to unexpected economic developments.” Japan is the Philippines’ second-largest trading partner next to China.

At the press briefing on July 8, shortly before a unique four-way handshake, the four ministers were bombarded with questions about the next step for bilateral relations: Would a Mutual Defense Treaty-like agreement be in the works? How about an agreement similar to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a deal with the US that allows the prepositioning of assets and troops in Philippine military bases? 

“I think that will all depend on how circumstances develop,” said Manalo. 

Manalo then pivoted back to the main message of July 8: “What’s important is that I think what the RAA has done is that…it could serve as a force for stability in the region, for greater prosperity. I think that it would be a way of Japan and the Philippines cooperating to deal not only with challenges, but how to take advantage of growing opportunities – not only in the security field and other areas. I think in that way, the RAA is really a very advantageous document for both the Philippines and Japan, and I think the region as a whole.” 

Of course, there are still urgent things to accomplish moving forward.

Now that defense and diplomatic officials are done facilitating, coordinating, and negotiating, the ball is now in the court of Philippine and Japanese legislators. The RAA must be approved or ratified by the Philippine Senate and the Japan Diet. 

After that? In Teodoro’s own words, the “the work of building confidence among the members of the Japanese Self-Defense Force and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.” – 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.