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Philippines, Japan Pledge Cooperation in Face of China’s Growing Presence

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III shake hands after Abe presented him with a topographical map of the country's third largest island of Mindanao, July 27, 2013.
The Philippines and Japan are reaffirming their commitment to cooperate on maritime security issues at the same time China is increasing its presence in disputed Asian waters.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rounded out his three-country tour in Southeast Asia with a visit to the Philippines Saturday. Following talks in Malaysia and Singapore, he met with President Benigno Aquino in Manila where the two had what he calls a “frank exchange” and “highly productive” meeting.

Speaking through an interpreter in the reception hall of the presidential palace, Abe said promoting maritime cooperation is one of four main areas that Japan is focused on in the two countries’ strategic partnership. “We confirmed continued assistance towards the capacity building of the Philippine Coast Guard and I have announced we will provide 10 vessels by Yen loan,” he said.

The Philippines is augmenting its tiny store of military hardware and the country has been anticipating additions to its patrol boat fleet. Philippine officials say the 10 vessels will be built in Japan to speed up delivery time. They hope to have the ships before the president’s term ends in 2016. The country is also in talks with Italy and South Korea to acquire more air- and sea-craft.

They say this is all toward building the country’s “minimum credible defense” especially in the South China Sea, where, in recent years, China has been visibly reasserting its claims to practically the entire body of water. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have partial or whole claims to the resource-rich sea.

For more than a year, Manila and China have been locked in a diplomatic dispute over Scarborough Shoal. More recently the Philippines says there were Chinese surveillance ships and a frigate in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, another rocky outcropping that both countries claim. The Associated Press reported this week, the government spotted Chinese Coast Guard ships near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

President Aquino said the meeting with Abe reaffirmed their dedication to their strategic partnership. Aquino said the two countries pledged to continue to advocate for “responsible action from international players.”

“We believe that this can be done by upholding the rule of law in international affairs and by finding just and peaceful solutions to our territorial disputes and maritime concerns so that we may create a secure and stable environment that leads to our collective progress,” Aquino stated.

This week state-backed media in China reported Abe's visit to the Southeast Asian nations would fail to contain China. Reports carried warnings that Japan's shift toward military expansion and away from its peace constitution, which mandates a security force strictly for self-defense, could spark an "arms race in East Asia." China's state-run People's Daily had earlier reported the defense and foreign ministers warned Abe against what they called "blindly advocating confrontation."

Japan’s own dispute with China over a group of islands in the East China Sea flared up in September last year, raising an alert with the United States, its defense treaty ally. This week Japan scrambled jets to head-off a Chinese craft flying in international airspace very near the disputed isles.

At a news conference in Manila later, Abe said Japan’s relationship with China is “important” and he reiterated the need for high level dialogue between the two countries.