MANILA – The Japanese government is keen on boosting its strategic ties with the Philippines under newly confirmed Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, citing security and the rule of law in the South China Sea as key areas it hopes to pursue with Manila's new top diplomat.
Hiromichi Matsuo, First Secretary for political affairs at the Japanese Embassy in Manila, extended Japan’s congratulations to Cayetano, saying his government looked forward to further strengthening ties with the Philippines under the Duterte administration.
“The Japanese government congratulates his (Cayetano’s) appointment as the new Foreign Secretary... The Philippines is Japan’s strategic partner in the region, so we’re really trying to develop this strategic partnership with the Duterte administration," Matsuo told ABS-CBN News.
He gave his comments on Cayetano's appointment as DFA chief last Monday, before the Commission on Appointments confirmed his nomination in swift proceedings on Wednesday.
Matsuo identified the area of security, particularly the unresolved South China Sea dispute, as an area of discussion that Japan would like to pursue with Cayetano at the helm of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
"For security, maybe, of course, the South China Sea, because Japan is consistently supporting the rule of law. This is very important," he said.
"So, we continue to promote and support this… maybe in that respect, we can be closely working with the Philippines," the official said.
Japan has for long supported the Philippines' stance against China's island-building and militarization activities over the South China Sea, as Beijing continued to assert "indisputable sovereignty" over nearly all of the waters.
While it pursued more amiable ties with the Philippines in other aspects, Beijing has continued to ignore Manila's landmark victory before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international body dedicated to peaceful settlement of disputes, that invalidated its nine-dash line claim.
The Philippines and China are set to begin bilateral talks on the dispute on Friday.
Amid growing regional concern over Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea, the Philippines and Japan elevated its relations into a strategic partnership in June 2015, signing a pact that allowed the exchange of defense materiel and the conduct of joint defense training between the two sides.
Recently, Japan loaned surveillance aircraft to the Philippines for South China Sea patrols.
Matsuo said the Japanese Coast Guard was also keen to undertake more joint trainings with the Philippines, particularly in the area of counter-terrorism.
"I think there’s a room for us to do more," he said.
Enhancing ties with the Philippines is of special significance this year for Japan as the former chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with which Tokyo has long had deep engagement.
"Especially this year, Philippines is ASEAN chair. So we’re hoping that we can closely coordinate with the new incoming secretary and enhance the cooperation with the partners in the region, including, of course, the Philippines [for], of course, stability and prosperity in the region," Matsuo said.
Japan is the Philippines No. 1 trading partner, with total bilateral trade estimated at $18.699 billion, or 14.4 percent of the country's total trade as of 2015, according to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
China, meanwhile, is second, with bilateral trade with the Philippines at $17.646 billion, or 13.6 percent of the total trade.