In the Pacific, New Military Agreements for a New Alliance Structure

6 MINS READJun 9, 2015 | 22:28 GMT
Philippine President Benigno Aquino (L) speaks during a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) after their meeting at the Akasaka State Guesthouse in Tokyo on June 2015.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino (L) speaks during a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) after their meeting at the Akasaka State Guesthouse in Tokyo on June 2015.

On Tuesday, the Philippine military announced that it would hold joint naval drills with Japan on June 22-26. Just four days before the announcement, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III concluded a state visit to Japan. In addition to signing a deal to buy 10 Japanese patrol boats and other Japanese defense equipment, Aquino announced that the Philippines and Japan were ready to begin talks on a visiting forces agreement. Under the proposed agreement, the Japan Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to refuel ships and aircraft in the Philippines, and Japanese military personnel would be able to use Philippine bases on a rotational basis. If signed, the visiting forces agreement would mark the second time that Japan has been able to secure basing rights abroad since the end of World War II (the first time being the small Japan Self-Defense Forces outpost in Djibouti that opened in 2011).

The final terms of the potential visiting forces agreement are not yet clear. However, the Philippines' efforts to augment a similar agreement with the United States give clues about its intent with the Japanese pact, if not necessarily the specifics. In April 2014, as China was pressuring the Philippines at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines signed an agreement with Washington allowing the United States to station forces rotationally in Philippine bases and stockpile supplies at these facilities. The Philippines-Japan visiting forces agreement, driven by these same tensions, could include similar terms.

The initiation of defense talks between Japan and the Philippines is significant but not unexpected, given their convergence of interests. With its weak external defense capabilities, the Philippines is eager to bring in as many outside parties as possible to bolster its position in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. A visiting forces agreement with Japan could give the Philippines improved access to training from Japan's world-class maritime forces, repair services desperately needed by the Philippine navy and coast guard, and maritime reconnaissance data. This support would become all the more crucial as the Philippines begins to take more deliveries of Japanese equipment.

The Japanese, for their part, are happy to oblige. In recent years, Japan has taken greater action to secure its interests far from its shores. The expansion of Chinese activity in the South China Sea threatens the sea-lanes that are the lifeblood of the Japanese economy. This is a major factor in Japan's remilitarization. In recent months, Japan has moved to strengthen engagement with South China Sea claimants, signing a defense pact with Indonesia in March, conducting joint naval exercises with Vietnam in April and signing a defense technology transfer deal with Malaysia in late May. Japanese activities in the South China Sea are likely to intensify if the Japanese legislature passes measures in July expanding the scope of Japan Self-Defense Forces activity. The Philippines' location makes it a natural partner for Japan as Tokyo seeks footholds for its forces in the South China Sea.

If the Philippines-Japan visiting forces agreement is signed, it could take some time to overcome domestic barriers. Domestically, the implementation of the enhanced Philippines-United States agreement has been sensitive since some are wary of welcoming back a former colonizer; the agreement is awaiting a ruling by the Philippine Supreme Court. A comparable pact with Japan could face similar opposition. However, Aquino's decision to announce and move forward on an agreement with Japan despite likely opposition shows Manila's recognition of the basic fact that the Philippines will not be able to secure its maritime interests without outside help. Manila's relations with Beijing are likely to grow strained as ties with Japan deepen, which could harm economic ties between the Philippines and China, but Aquino appears to have calculated that the Sino-Philippine relationship is at the point where it will make no difference (as evidenced by his comments likening Chinese activities in the South China Sea to aggression by Nazi Germany). Moreover, additional aid from Japan — perhaps as part of the $110 billion infrastructure aid package Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced in May — will make up for the potential loss of Chinese investment.

This is a data point in another trend that Stratfor has been following: the United States' attempts to shift some of the burden of regional security to its allies. This plan has led to the slow reconfiguration of the U.S. alliance system in Asia, still largely based on a Cold War alliance structure called the hub-and-spoke system. This was a series of bilateral alliances between the United States and its Asian treaty partners featuring strong ties between each of the allies and Washington but limited collaboration among the Asian states themselves. The hub-and-spoke system enabled the United States to both check its adversaries and dominate aggressive allies such as South Korea and Taiwan, preventing them from dragging the United States into unwanted conflicts in an era of nuclear hair triggers. The United States quashed allies' attempts to independently build regional alliances among themselves. In return, the Americans shouldered the main burden of defending their partners, stationing large garrisons in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Times have changed. The U.S. alliance system is no longer made up of weak but militarily adventurous regimes, reducing the need to maintain a tight grip on relations between allies. Some U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, are rich and boast significant militaries, yet nearly 80,000 U.S. soldiers are garrisoned in these two countries in the name of providing regional security. These garrisons, plus the U.S. operations to secure the region's sea-lanes, are extremely costly and tie down significant American resources.

Therefore, the United States wants capable partners such as Japan to pick up some of the slack in supporting weaker allies such as the Philippines. Washington has pushed its allies to build their own bilateral security ties, which had been lacking during the Cold War. Although the effort has so far yielded some modest successes, a Philippines-Japan visiting forces agreement could be a landmark as the United States reconfigures its alliance structure in Asia, potentially leading to similar arrangements between other American allies in the future. 

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