Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino shake hands at the State Guest House in Tokyo on June 4, 2015, prior to their talks. Pool photo/Kyodo News
TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino agreed Thursday to start negotiations on an accord for the transfer of defense equipment and technology, as the two nations aim to bolster security ties amid China's increasing assertiveness at sea.
Meeting in Tokyo during Aquino's state visit to Japan, the two leaders also shared their deep concerns over unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), according to a joint statement they issued after the meeting, apparently with China's recent rapid and massive reclamation work in mind.
At a time when such actions by Beijing have stoked tensions in and beyond Asia, the statement said Abe and Aquino underscored the importance of resolving maritime disputes based on international law and called for restraint in taking unilateral actions at sea.
Japan, the Philippines, the United States and European nations have voiced their concerns over the pace and extent of Beijing's reclamation work in contested waters in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, which is a vital shipping lane and touted as having rich fishing grounds. Rival claimants in the dispute are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippines has been vocal in opposing Beijing's growing maritime assertiveness, having taken its dispute with China over the South China Sea to a U.N. tribunal based in The Hague. In the statement, Japan expressed its support for Manila's move.
Beijing has defended its reclamation work as not just meeting its defense needs but also providing an "international public service" for maritime safety. China also says it prefers resolving territorial feuds through bilateral negotiations, not multilaterally.
While Japan is not involved in the South China Sea spat, it has its own tensions with Beijing in the East China Sea, where Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed islands lie. These islands are known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China.
To ensure regional peace and stability, Abe and Aquino agreed to bolster their security cooperation through expanded joint and multilateral exercises.
Japanese government sources have said P-3C patrol aircraft and radar-related equipment are among potential export items under the envisioned transfer of defense equipment.
Holding talks for the sixth time, Abe and Aquino welcomed the signing of an accord the same day to pave the way for the provision of patrol boats to the Philippines, with Abe promising Japan's continued support for capacity-building of the Philippine Coast Guard, the statement said.
Tokyo has promised 10 patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard to help Manila beef up its maritime patrol activities.
Tapping into the potential of the Southeast Asian country, whose annual growth has stayed at around 6 percent to 7 percent, the two leaders unveiled a road map for better transport infrastructure in Manila to make it easier to conduct business in the capital, known for its traffic congestion.
In this context, Japan pledged to launch a railway project worth about 300 billion yen ($2.4 billion), according to the statement.
Aquino, whose country has strategic partnerships with Japan and the United States, praised Japan's postwar path as a peace-loving nation, the document said, noting Japan-Philippine ties as an example of countries overcoming issues of the past.
Despite being one of the sites of fierce battles during World War II, the Philippines has developed close economic, political and cultural ties with Japan over the years. Next year, the two countries will mark the 60th anniversary of bilateral ties.
Speaking at an investment forum earlier in the day, Aquino said Japanese firms have "made their mark on the Philippine electronics, shipbuilding and automotive industries, among others -- to the point where their work and their products are already irreplaceable in the lives of Filipinos."
He urged more companies to follow suit, saying, "Today, I tell you, there is no better time to set up shop in the country."
Some 1,200 Japanese firms currently operate in the Philippines, and Japan was the Philippines' largest trading partner in 2014 as well as the largest source of official development assistance.