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Japan Upgrades Philippines Coast Guard

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Barcelona) — At a meeting held on May 22 in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Filipino counterpart Albert del Rosario confirmed that Tokyo would be providing ten vessels to the Philippine coast guard “with an eye on China,” according to the Asahi Shinbun. The Philippines have long been considered among the weakest military powers in Southeast Asia, while Japan chose in the 1960s not to export weapons, as part of its postwar focus on economic reconstruction. Both countries are now reexamining their defense postures and have already agreed in principle to the transfer of ten “Multi-Role Response Vessels.” Will this lead to a deeper bilateral relationship, featuring the transfer or export of other weapons systems?

The reasons why the Philippines are seeking to rearm are well known, as they are reacting to growing tensions in the South China Sea (which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea). These tensions have already led to closer relations with the United States and the announcement of a major weapons purchase program.

On May 21, in a speech on the occasion of the Navy’s 115th anniversary, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III told naval officers, “We have a clear message to the world: The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard.”

In his address, he also said that the country would be spending US$1.82 billion to upgrade its military, with an emphasis on the Navy. Procurement plans include “three Multi-Purpose Attack Craft, or MPAC, eight Amphibious Assault Vehicles, two Frigates and two Anti-Submarine Warfare-Capable Helicopters, and other helicopters,” as well as improvements to “our Communication, Intelligence, and Surveillance System.” There have also been rumors that Manila may be interested in Spain’s prematurely decommissioned light carrier Principe de Asturias.

These plans have become more urgent following an incident with Taiwan in which a fisherman died. The resulting naval drill by the Taiwanese Navy in international waters close to the Philippine Islands exposed the latter’s military weakness and led to renewed calls to procure additional warships. In an interview with the Philippine Star on May 20, Lieutenant General Emmanuel Bautista, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said that the incident and resulting tensions were “a wake-up call for all of us as a people, that we should invest in our defense and this is not solely the responsibility of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This is a national responsibility for us Filipinos.”

Some potential obstacles stand in the way of these ambitions: first, the cost involved; second, alternative proposals to appease Beijing; third, the degree to which the Philippines can concentrate on external defense.

While tensions with China have been growing in recent years, Manila has had good news on the domestic front, with a ceasefire by Muslim insurgents in the south. On May 27, an official statement by the office of the president “welcomed the decision of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to form a political party that will run in future elections.” Things are not so clear, though, since just a few days earlier seven Filipino marines had died in an attack by an armed group in Patikul (Sulu).

Tokyo is not involved in counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines, although as explained by Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs Maria Theresa Lazaro during the September 2011 trip to Japan by President Aquino, “They [Japan] are a member of the International Monitoring Team, they’re a member of the International Contact Group [for the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front], and they have this project which they call the J-BIRD [Japan-Bangsamoro Initiative for Reconstruction and Development].”

Japan agreed, however, to provide ten patrol boats for the Philippine coast guard, together with the associated equipment and training. This decision built on existing Japanese policy, but at the same time involved a major step forward. Even before the relaxation of the ban on weapons exports, one of the limited exceptions was assistance to Southeast Asian countries in the fight against piracy. In the past, this had led to the provision of unarmed patrol boats to Indonesia.

Counter-piracy operations are the province of coast guards, and therefore this may have been seen as another such deal. However, while piracy remains a problem in Southeast Asian waters, it is tensions with China which are attracting more and more attention in the Philippines.

In such confrontations, it is usually coast guards, not navies, which are involved.

This reality makes it increasingly difficult, or even no longer possible, to wrap the provision of coast guard hardware in purely counter-piracy terms.

Indeed, when the United States agreed to supply the Philippines with a second 378 feet-long Hamilton-class cutter, then-US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said, “Our goal, which we share with Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is to support a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants to resolve their disputes without coercion.” What Campbell appeared to indicate was that it was necessary to help upgrade the Philippine coast guard to create a more level playing field for negotiations with Beijing.

Similarly, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s words during his trip to the Philippines in January to meet his counterpart were suggestive: “As the strategic environment in the region is changing, it is necessary for us as foreign ministers to share recognition of the situation, enhance the strategic partnership between the two countries, and cooperate towards shaping a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.”

Concerning possible further steps in Japan-Philippines defense cooperation, a number of possibilities have been mentioned, but often they amount to little more than rumors. One of these rumors has it that unmanned Japanese surveillance planes may be deployed to the region. When asked about this report, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said, “There has been no request that I know of and, until such time that there is a request, we’ll have to evaluate it.”

At any rate, the ten patrol boats will be a major addition to the Philippines’ coast guard, but will not significantly alter the balance of power with China. They may, however, be a harbinger of things to come.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.

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