From Conflict to Alliance: Japan and Philippines' Historic Defense Agreement

Japan and the Philippines made a historic military agreement, largely in response to the shared challenge posed by China

by Sededin Dedovic
From Conflict to Alliance: Japan and Philippines' Historic Defense Agreement
© Ezra Acayan / Getty Images

Japan and the Philippines today signed a key defense pact allowing the deployment of Japanese forces in the Philippines during joint military exercises. The Philippines, which were under Japanese occupation during World War II, are now allied with Japan as they face an increasingly powerful China.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement, which also allows Filipino forces to enter Japan for joint military exercises, was signed by Filipino Defense Minister Gilberto Teodoro and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa at a ceremony in Manila attended by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Kamikawa called the signing of the defense agreement a "revolutionary achievement" aimed at further enhancing defense cooperation between Japan and the Philippines. "A free and open international order based on the rule of law is the foundation of regional peace and prosperity.

We wish to closely cooperate with your country to uphold and strengthen this," she said. The U.S. is also bolstering a series of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China. Beijing's claims over Taiwan have prompted many Asian nations to strengthen military ties with America.

Taiwan Conducts Live Fire Military Exercises© Annabelle Chih / Getty Images

Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies of the U.S., and their leaders held trilateral talks in April at the White House, where President Joe Biden reaffirmed Washington's "ironclad" commitment to defend Japan and the Philippines.

Common Enemy: China

Tensions between the Philippines and China focus on the Second Thomas Shoal reef, located approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the coast of the Philippine island of Palawan. In the 1990s, the Philippines deliberately grounded a World War II-era naval transport ship on the shoal to assert its rights to the area.

The ship is now mostly a rusting hulk managed by Filipino marines, as reported by CNN. Meanwhile, China claims the reef, located within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, as its sovereign territory, as well as much of the South China Sea, despite an international arbitration ruling.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship fires a water cannon at Unaizah May 4, a Philippine Navy chartered vessel, conducting a routine resup© Ezra Acayan / getty Images

Recent clashes occurred when Philippine attempts to resupply forces on the ship were blocked by Chinese coast guard vessels, which fired water cannons at Filipino supply boats, resulting in injuries to Filipino sailors and damage to the vessels.

Marcos has vowed not to yield to Chinese intimidation, and the U.S. has explicitly stated that its mutual defense agreement with the Philippines covers the Second Thomas Shoal and involved Filipino forces. Regarding the Senkaku Islands—referred to as Diaoyus by China—Washington has also reiterated multiple times that they fall under the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty, as Beijing maintains a constant presence of its coast guard vessels around islands under Japanese control.

Painful Past

China's tactics have united Biden, Kishida, and Marcos in a way few could have imagined given their complex and often problematic trilateral history, analysts say. The Philippines became a U.S. colony in 1899 after Spain ceded control of its long-time territory to Washington as part of the settlement of the Spanish-American War.

But Filipino nationalists fought against U.S. control in the Philippine-American War from 1899 to 1902, during which more than 4,200 Americans and 20,000 Filipino soldiers, as well as 200,000 Filipino civilians, were killed, according to U.S.

State Department sources. During World War II, the Philippines, then still an American colony, suffered a brutal invasion by Imperial Japanese forces, resulting in up to a million civilian and military casualties, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

Tens of thousands of Filipino soldiers died during the infamous Bataan Death March and in prisoner-of-war camps where they were interned at its end. Post-war trials convicted Japanese commander in the Battle of Bataan and the man responsible for the troops who conducted the Death March, General Masaharu Homma, of war crimes.

He was executed in 1946. But analysts say the World War II history with Japan in the Philippines has been forgotten—if not entirely forgiven. The country faces immediate, urgent social, economic, and political issues to tackle their impact on the daily lives of its citizens, said Perez, a professor at a Filipino university.

Therefore, despite all the longstanding "disagreements," cold geopolitical calculus means Japan and the United States as allies are the Philippines' best option for issues of territorial sovereignty, Perez said. "Building alliances is the most practical way to confront Chinese moves in the South China Sea," he said.

The Biden administration is establishing what Robert Ward, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called a "network" of alliances around China, rather than a "hub-and-spoke" system where bilateral relationships extend to a series of foreign capitals with Washington at the center.

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