PH envoy eyes strong ties with Japan, US to deter China

By May Masangkay, Kyodo News

Posted at May 17 2014 01:01 AM | Updated as of May 18 2014 07:35 AM

TOKYO - Philippine Ambassador to Japan Manuel Lopez expressed hope Friday that his nation will bolster its cooperation with Japan and mutual ally the United States over maritime security issues as a way to deter China's growing assertiveness at sea.

Lopez said in an interview with Kyodo News that the Philippines is "not a military power" and "very vulnerable to more incursions by China," and needs the help of countries such as the United States and Japan to help ease maritime tensions.

"I'm rather alarmed at the recent developments especially after seeing some photographs of some structures being built," he said, referring to the Philippine government's recent protest over China's fortification of the contested Johnson Reef in the South China Sea.

Also this month, Chinese ships injured Vietnamese crewmembers aboard other ships during clashes over China's deployment of an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands.

China has competing claims over islands in the South China Sea with some Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines and Vietnam. Beijing is also at odds with Japan over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, uninhabited islets which China claims and calls Diaoyu.

Given the limits of the Philippine military in facing China, Lopez said the way to go is to work closely with Washington and Tokyo, which share Manila's situation of maritime tensions with China, and tap into their strengths in maritime security.

Japan pledged last year to provide the Philippines with 10 coast guard patrol ships.

"Your experience in maritime matters will certainly be of great help for us," Lopez said of Japan. Knowing that Japan and the United States "will be there to come to our help" will boost the morale of the Philippine troops, he said.

Regarding the United States, also a close ally of Japan, the ambassador said he hopes a new U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation pact signed last month will be a "deterrent to China" and make it "more difficult (for China) to bully around" the Philippines.

Simmering tensions in the South China Sea also come at a time when Japan is at a crucial stage of debating whether the country can defend allies under armed attack through "limited" use of the right to collective self-defense.

A panel of security experts proposed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday lifting Japan's self-imposed ban on exercising the right to come to the defense of an ally under attack. Abe has expressed hope the ban will be lifted.

Lopez said he welcomes Abe's stance on the issue and does not see any problem coming to the aid of an ally "if there is really a compelling reason to assist your neighbors."

He praised the overseas activities of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, including their participation in disaster relief operations in the typhoon-hit Philippines last year.

The envoy also said Japan and the Philippines enjoy close economic ties and can expect to benefit economically through increased tourism, helped by a growing number of flights between the two countries.