MANILA - The Philippines and Japan are forging stronger ties amid their separate territorial disputes with China.
This is on the agenda as President Benigno Aquino III and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in Tokyo next week.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Charles Jose told a Palace briefing that the President will undertake a one-day working visit to Japan on June 24.
Aquino will deliver the keynote address at the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao Conference in Hiroshima, organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Research and Education for Peace of the University Sains Malaysia.
During the visit, the President will meet with Abe.
The meeting is an opportunity for the two leaders to exchange views on recent regional developments and to discuss areas of cooperation to enhance the two countries' strategic partnership.
These areas of cooperation include humanitarian assistance and disaster response, maritime cooperation, promotion of trade and investments, people-to-people exchanges and the Mindanao peace process.
"As far as I know, for the bilateral meeting, it will be I think one-plus-two and it will be an expanded meeting over lunch," Jose said.
The two leaders will deliver their respective press statements at 1:25 p.m., Japan time, on June 24.
Jose did not rule out any discussions on China.
"These are two leaders meeting and talking and they can talk about anything that they would like. They can raise issues that they would like. So we don't want to rule in or rule out any issue that will be discussed between the two leaders. This is another opportunity for the two countries and for the two leaders to further strengthen our cooperation and partnership. Like I said earlier, we have a very strong relationship, dating back to when we first established diplomatic relations in 1956," he said.
Jose did say that the Philippine arbitration case against China may be discussed.
"We are preparing the President for whatever topics. And for us, with regard to the South China Sea, it is very important for the President to brief the Japanese side on the arbitration case that we filed against China. I'm sure the President will be updating the Prime Minister on the status of our case."
Jose, however, was evasive when asked if this meant that the Philippines and Japan are joining forces against China.
"Japan is a very important friend and partner of the Philippines. We have a very vibrant political, economic, and people-to-people exchanges with Japan. As we all know, Japan is one of our only two strategic partners. And in terms of economic cooperation, Japan is our number one trading partner, largest source of ODA (official development assistance), third largest source of approved investments, and third largest source of tourists. And in terms of people-to-people exchanges, we are very vibrant also; scholarships and trainings are being offered by JICA, for example. So I think they have a lot of matters that could be discussed during this bilateral meeting."
He explained the importance of the trip despite its shortness. "First of all, [President Aquino] will be delivering the keynote address in the Bangsamoro conference. So, as we all know, the Philippine government, especially the President, attaches very much importance to this CAB (Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro)... And since he will be in Japan, he was invited by the Japanese Prime Minister to go to Tokyo for a bilateral meeting."
Aquino met with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leadership in the early part of his term in Japan to help restart the peace process.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the President will be accompanied by the secretaries of Foreign Affairs, National Defense, and Finance, as well as the presidential Spokesperson, Secretary Julia Abad and Secretary Teresita Deles.
Japan has protested China's declaration of an air defense identification zone in the east sea. It is also fending of China's claims over the Senkaku Islands near Taiwan.
The Philippines has filed an arbitration case against China over its activities in the Mabini Reef, Ayungin and Scarborough Shoals, Kalayaan Island group and other parts of the West Philippine Sea.
Both Japan and The Philippines are treaty allies of the United States.