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Manila Debates the Hosting of Japanese Troops

Onodera Voltaire

Itsunori Onodera and Gazmin Voltaire

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — Tokyo’s defense policy continues to shift and pushes the boundaries of what was acceptable in the past. Self-Defense Forces capabilities are expanding, and this is an essential component of the growing coordination between the region’s maritime democracies.

Setting aside port visits, multinational drills, and participation in multinational operations, Japanese forces already operate from one overseas military base: in Djibouti, supporting counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Although it is important as the first such base, it is small in scale and devoted to a kind of operations that brings together all seafaring nations.

What is being discussed now in Manila is a much larger step: Self-Defense Forces access to bases in the Philippine islands.

The debate in Manila refers to a large extent to US forces, but many voices are making it clear that they would like to see Japanese forces regularly rotate through as well. Defense Secretary Gazmin Voltaire explicitly said that the administration’s security plans do refer to Tokyo and not Washington alone.

A powerful reason is to try to involve as many regional powers as possible in the territorial integrity of the Philippines, thus making it more difficult for China to seize additional territories without unleashing a multilateral response. This is one of the three legs of Manila’s policy; the other two being military rearmament and the pursuance of an international arbitration case under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The idea, however, is for regular rotations of US and Japanese forces and not a permanent troop presence. This is in line with the latest trends in the Asia-Pacific region, which have seen, for example, an agreement between Australia and the United States for regular rotations of a US Marine contingent.

There are different reasons to prefer regular rotations, ranging from a lower impact on public opinion to cost savings, and including additional flexibility and added complications to any potential enemy employing ballistic missiles.

In the case of the Philippines, it may also facilitate a government decision by lowering the legal barrier to its adoption.

This is the view, for example, of Senator Edgardo Angara, who explained that it was “permissible” to grant the US and Japanese militaries “greater” temporary access to Philippine bases, as planned by the Aquino administration. Angara said that it was not necessary for the Senate to approve a decision by the executive branch to relax access to military facilities by foreign forces, but that the latter had to inform the upper chamber of the details. The reason is that it is “part of the oversight function of Congress because, after all, Congress provides the funding and appropriations to the executive, including government corporations… The Congress has a right to ask the Palace to provide it the quarterly periodic reports.” However, this would not involve ratification, since, according to Angara, “they are not concluding any treaty or international agreement. If there is an international agreement, it must get Senate concurrence… as long as it’s not permanent basing, that can be allowed. That’s permissible.”

Speaking at a press conference in the Senate, Angara also touched upon two important aspects of his country’s decision to open up its military facilities to the US and Japan. First of all he referred to the changing regional scenario, explaining, “Our political situation has drastically changed since we passed the ‘no foreign bases’ way back in 1986. Since then, especially in our neighborhood, the territorial conflicts are drastically increasing every other month.”

Second, he linked greater contact with friendly armed forces with the Philippines’ efforts to modernize their own military, saying, “You cannot get effective, militarily up-to-date standards, unless you do exercises with experienced militaries” and “the idea is to get experience from partners to help conduct clinics because military exercises are like clinics. You learn from each other. You learn whether your equipment, gunnery, and machines are inter-operational, that these machines can be exchanged from one to the other.”

Not everybody in the Philippines agrees with Senator Angara. Others caution that the plans of the Aquino administration may in fact run counter to the country’s constitution. This is the view, for example, of Senator Gringo Honasan, who texted, “Technically, I think it may be a violation of the Constitution” which bans foreign military bases on domestic territory. However, Honasan qualified his opposition, explaining that “if our national interest and security are at stake, we have limited choices because we are still a developing country at the mercy of and dependent on powers like the US and China.” As a result, he would be ready to support the plans, explaining that, “For practical purposes, our national security is an urgent matter given the fact that China is not moving away. It’s only with the US [support] that China could be cowed.”

One of his colleagues, Senator Panfilo Lacson, also texted on the issue, advising the administration to be prudent and to consult the Senate. He wrote, “There is a wide gray of area of interpreting the planned move of allowing temporary access to our military bases by the US and other allies.” Lacson believes that the upper chamber should be consulted since “the Senate is mandated by the Constitution to ratify bilateral agreements between our country and another and using temporary access as a technicality to go around that constitutional [requirement] does not speak well of the Defense Department.”

While Senators Honasan and Lacson may wish to see greater legislator involvement in Manila’s new policy, they do not squarely oppose the plans.

The leftist organization Bayan, however, does clearly oppose the plans: they issued a statement calling on Manila to “reject US intervention and manipulation.” The group further asserted that, “The Philippine government is grossly mistaken if it thinks that the US is the key to defending our national sovereignty. The US is merely out to take advantage of the dispute so that it can position itself strategically in Asia.”

Another critical voice is the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a newspaper which ran an editorial critical of the Aquino administration’s plan. It read: “A decision to host allied military forces inside Philippine bases, however, should not be taken lightly; meetings and supply arrangements and joint exercises can all be justified as the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ belated attempts at capacity-building. Allowing foreign troops from allies with a stake in the ongoing South China Sea disputes to operate in and — the crucial difference — from Philippine military bases is much harder to rationalize.”

The mention of the South China Sea dispute is significant, since its temperature has been rising in recent weeks with mutual accusations between Manila and Beijing. Tokyo has not refrained from joining the dispute: Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a joint media conference with his Filipino counterpart Voltaire Gazmin: “We agreed that we will further cooperate in terms of the defense of remote islands… the defense of territorial seas as well as protection of maritime interests.”

Former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. not only spoke out in favor of Manila’s plans, but also added two contributions of his own. First of all, he said that, in his view, temporary access to military facilities should be available “not only for Japan and the US, but also for other friendly states, such as the ASEAN states and Australia.” Second, he argued in a message to Rappler, a social news network, that “this is useful not merely for traditional defense concerns but also for non-traditional ones such as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR), Peace Keeping Operations (PKO), and responding to pandemics, to name a few.”

Despite some internal opposition in both the Philippines and Japan, some of it involving fundamental constitutional debates, both countries seem to be edging closer to one another as they have common concerns about the growth of Chinese power.

This may explain, at least in part, why Tokyo’s gradual but relentless “normalization” is raising few eyebrows in Southeast Asia. Other than in China, the emerging consensus is that Japan is a key component in the maritime coalition seeking to prevent changes in borders and maritime conventions by force of arms. This does not mean that awareness of painful historical issues has disappeared in Southeast Asia, but they are not strong enough to stop the process of embracing Japan’s expanding role.

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