By Tom Holcombe, an intern with the Lowy Institute's International Security Program.

An upcoming visit to the Philippines by a Japanese submarine and two destroyers underscores a deepening bilateral security relationship.

Japan is reportedly planning to lease retired TC 90s to the Philippines (Photo courtesy of Alec HSU)

China's increasing activities in the South China Sea have made the Philippines a natural recipient of Japan's 'capacity building assistance'. Manila is not the only recipient, just the most prominent one.

There has been a convergence in the strategic threat perceptions of the two countries. Japan has stressed its interest in the freedom of navigation and 'open and stable seas', underscoring its dependence on sea lines of communication that run through Southeast Asia. Tokyo supports Manila's legal case against Beijing's asserted 'nine-dash line' and is an observer in that case. With Chinese land reclamation activities at its doorstep in the Spratly Islands, the Philippines are increasingly embracing like-minded partners, such as Japan and the US. To this end, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III welcomed Tokyo's new security legislation.

Japan's drive to develop relationships with Southeast Asian countries predates Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's return to power in late 2012. It was under the Democratic Party of Japan that Tokyo and Manila established a strategic partnership in 2011. However, the Japanese-Filipino security relationship has flourished with Abe's push to bring Japan's security weight more in line with its economic strength. This is evident in bilateral defense co-operation, diplomatic policy initiatives, and joint training and exercises, as detailed below.

Bilateral defense cooperation

In April 2014 Japan established three principles that if satisfied would allow for the transfer of defence equipment and technology, marking a shift from what was in effect a prohibition on military sales. In late February this year Tokyo and Manila signed a defence equipment transfer agreement. This made the Philippines the first Southeast Asian country to have such an agreement with Japan. The agreement promotes the joint production and development of defence equipment and technology, and establishes a legal framework providing for this.

According to media reports, the first transfer under the new agreement may be at least five retired Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) TC-90 aircraft that the Japanese government plans to lease to the Philippine Navy. The aircraft could be used for visual monitoring over the Spratly Islands. Discussions on such a lease may take place during a possible visit to the Philippines by Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in April.

Diplomatic policy initiatives

In February 2015 Japan revised its Overseas Development Assistance policy in line with its National Defense Guidelines. A key area of its development cooperation is promoting international peace and stability. This includes ensuring the safety of sea lines of communication. Securing maritime safety is one element of assistance for Southeast Asian countries.

Consistent with this revised policy, but predating it, is Tokyo's loan agreement to Manila of over ¥18 billion ($200 million) for the 'Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project for the Philippine Coast Guard'. An additional loan agreement devised in 2011 and signed in 2015 provides for the provision of 10 patrol vessels to Manila.

Late last year the Japan International Cooperation Agency (which coordinates ODA), the Japanese Coast Guard, the Nippon Foundation and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies jointly launched the Maritime Safety and Security Policy program. The program is aimed at enhancing the skills of coast guard personnel from Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Joint training and exercises

JMSDF destroyers returning from the Gulf of Aden have participated in bilateral and multilateral exercises with Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines. The JMSDF and the Philippine Navy conducted bilateral exercises in May and June last year. The exercises focused on responding to unplanned encounters at sea, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and maritime safety.

In late 2014 Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force personnel participated as observers in the US-Filipino joint exercise PHILBEX15. That same month a JMSDF destroyer participated in a trilateral exercise with the US and the Philippines navies in a number of live fire, communications and close-in maneuvering drills.

These recent activities are demonstrative of Japan's 'capacity building assistance' to Southeast Asia, and to the Philippines in particular. This policy was identified in Japan's National Defense Guidelines released in late 2013 which noted:

As capacity building assistance is effective in stabilising the security environment and strengthening bilateral defense cooperation, Japan will promote it in full coordination with diplomatic policy initiatives, including the Official Development Assistance (ODA), and aligning it with joint training and exercises and international peacekeeping activities. Japan will also strengthen cooperation with relevant countries which actively provide such support, thereby expanding the range of countries receiving support as well as its scope.

'Capacity building assistance' has allowed Japan to present itself as a relevant power in the region with strategic interests that it will act to promote. In response, China is sensitive to what it sees as a challenge to its sovereignty and security interests. Any strategic maneuvering by Japan or country seeking 'capacity building assistance' from Japan will risk disapproval from China. Indeed, China has already criticised Manila's intent to lease the five TC-90 aircraft from Tokyo, and the upcoming visit to the Philippines by the Japanese submarine and two destroyers.

Japan's support can assist Southeast Asian countries in placing greater emphasis on maritime capabilities and surveillance. This is particularly true of the Philippines, which has historically concentrated on internal security issues.

The effectiveness of Japan's policy, in terms of the Philippines taking a greater role in managing its own security, goes beyond the Japanese contribution per se. The reference to 'cooperation with relevant countries' in the statement of policy quoted above recognises that Japan alone cannot be the sole effective provider of 'capacity building assistance' to, for instance, the Philippines. The effectiveness of Japan's contribution is complemented by other countries giving support. The Philippines has also received diplomatic and/or military support from the US, Australia and India. This patchwork of assistance to the Philippines and Southeast Asia more broadly can complement Japan's security objectives and reinforce its strategic position in the region and, by extension, that of the US.