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Japan’s economic leverage to undercut China, analysts say


By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE JAPANESE government might be using its economic power to boost defense ties with the Philippines and other countries locked in territorial disputes with China in response to growing Chinese militarism in the region, political analysts said on Thursday.

“Japan is leveraging its economic and financial wherewithal to promote its expanding security interests,” Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“It is providing support to the maritime capacity building of coastal states, including those with longstanding disputes with its neighboring rival China,” he said. “Manila is an obvious target of those overtures.”

Japan, which is upgrading the Philippines’ coast guard, wants more patrols in the South China Sea, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. told reporters on his way for a working visit to Tokyo on Wednesday. He added that Japanese support for the Philippine Coast Guard is nothing new.

He said Japan might be interested in upgrading the former Subic Naval Base for the Philippine Coast Guard. “Naturally, the reason behind all these is they would like to have more patrols along, up and down the South China Sea so that we can assure the freedom of passage.”

Mr. Marcos Jr. said Japan has been helping develop the agency, having built two brand-new multi-role response vessels for the Philippines. The Philippines also bought four Mitsubishi air surveillance radars from Japan last year. 

“In 2018, for the first time since the end of World War II, Japanese armored vehicles rolled out in foreign soil as Japanese soldiers took part in the Philippine-United States Kamandag exercises,” he added.

The Philippines has given the United States, one of Japan’s key allies, access to four new military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in 2014 under the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III.

“As the US gains greater military access to Philippine locations through the implementation and expansion of EDCA, it is likely that Japan will follow suit,” Mr. Pitlo said, noting that the country could enter into a reciprocal access agreement with Japan.

“Japan may dangle more market access, infrastructure finance and capital to secure access to strategic Philippine real estate through the deal,” he said. Japan may also co-locate with the US for agreed EDCA sites and help finance the construction of related military infrastructure.

On Wednesday, Mr. Marcos said there were no formal talks yet between Manila and Tokyo on a reciprocal deal. “I don’t know if the prime minister will bring it up with me in this trip.”

“Japan itself is also in the middle of its continuing economic contractions, so that also ultimately puts a cap on what it can actually give us,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher studying at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said via Messenger chat.

The level of security ties between the two countries could be measured by looking at how Japan treats the Philippines after giving military equipment.

“You do not only give away hardware, you ensure that people are trained to maintain them, make them useful throughout the hardware’s natural lifespan, and hopefully also enable us to develop and manufacture them ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Juliano said Japan, like the Philippines, is also tied with the US in terms of security. “Any presence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and any potential partnerships with the Philippine government is ultimately tied to American strategic goals, and will probably not happen unless American strategy is needed.”

Mr. Juliano said Japan has been struggling to convince its people about the scope of its military’s international operations. The Japanese Constitution forbids the use of force in settling international disputes and bars Japan from maintaining an army, navy or air force.

The constitutional limitation on Japan’s defense expansion makes the Tokyo-Manila security ties “tricky,” said policy analyst Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco. “Any possibility of doing joint patrols or entering into a visiting forces agreement will have to factor in this limitation,” he said in a Messenger chat. 

He said Mr. Marcos should be wary of the possibility of Japan using “our troubles” in the South China Sea “as a way to circumvent the constitutional limitation.”

“Hawkish elements in the Japanese government may use our troubles in the South China Sea as a justification to strengthen their military capability without contravening their Constitution.”

In 2017, a United Nations-backed tribunal voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map. 

Japan and the US are seen as major obstacles to China’s global ambitions.

Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines, expects the Marcos government to seek the help of Japan in developing the former military base at the Subic Freeport “as a port that can host maintenance capability.”

“Whether this would eventually lead to Japanese coast guard ships berthing there, and eventually operating jointly in patrols with the Philippine Coast Guard, will require other agreements to come into place, such as a kind of status of forces agreement with Japan,” he said via Viber.

The deal lays down the rights and privileges of foreign forces in a host country.

“If the Philippines enters into such an agreement with Japan, it would allow for a deepening of operational cooperation between them,” Mr. Kraft said, noting that Filipinos oppose the deal.

ASEAN WORRIESA firmer foothold by Japan and the US in the Philippines is expected to raise concerns for China, Mr. Pitlo said. “This is especially so if Manila agrees to conduct joint patrols with both allies in the contested South China Sea. This can add complications to Manila’s ties with its largest trade partner, Beijing.”

Critics also worry that the Philippines might be dragged into Washington’s conflict with China, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan.

Increased tensions in the Taiwan Strait and unresolved disputes with China are the “biggest potential flashpoints” affecting Southeast Asia, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

In a report, the center said 43.3% of the respondents feared that hostilities in the Taiwan Strait could destabilize the region, while 28.7% felt that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be forced to take sides. Of the 1,308 Southeast Asian respondent, 7.6% were Filipinos.

More than 15% felt it would reduce economic cooperation with either China or Taiwan. “Only 3.4% of the respondents say that it will not affect the region at all.”

Increased military tensions arising from potential flashpoints ranked third on the list of concerns of Filipinos at 50.5%. Their top concern was climate change at 76.8%, followed by unemployment and recession at 60.6%.

For ASEAN, unemployment and recession was the top concern (59.5%), followed by climate change (57.1%) and the widening socioeconomic gaps and military tensions (tied at 41.9%).

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