(UPDATE) - There are no formal talks yet between Manila and Tokyo on a possible defense cooperation deal similar to that of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has said.
Speaking to reporters on board the presidential plane en route to Japan, Marcos said the Japanese government is helping the Philippine Coast Guard on equipment and other capacity-building measures.
“Yung support nila sa Coast Guard, matagal na yan… that kind of cooperation has been ongoing. Siguro sa kanilang palagay, the next step is to the improvement, rehabilitation sa Subic, para nga sa Coast Guard,” said Marcos.
“Naturally, the reason behind all this is they would like to have more patrols along… South China Sea para naman we can assure the freedom of passage,” he added.
Marcos said he and his Japanese counterparts aim to foster security in the region and cooperation during his 3-day official visit to the country, noting the importance of modernizing the country's armed forces.
“So this is a new element to our relationship because we’re now talking about security of the region. So being, of course, all interested in the same thing, i.e., security in the region, I think cooperation is not a bad thing,” the President said.
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, part of Marcos' official delegation in Tokyo, urged the President to explore the topic during his meeting with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio there.
Zubiri described the potential deal as "strategic" and can boost the two countries' partnership, noting that Japan is an ally amid the continuing tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
“We stand to benefit from stronger security cooperation with our allies," said the Senate President.
“Japan is already offering vital support to our Coast Guard, not just through vessels and equipment but also through other capacity-building opportunities such as training,” he added.
“Apart from the VFA being crucial to building up our security and defense, it will also be massively helpful to us in times of natural calamities and disasters."
In a chance interview with ABS-CBN News last week, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Nathaniel Imperial said it was important to establish the link on humanitarian assistance on disaster relief or HADR first before any talks on the VFA.
Imperial said a security agreement could happen in the future.
"It's military [who will sign the HADR]. We need a framework for that to happen on a regular basis. HADR muna (first)... but there could be discussions in the future," Imperial told ABS-CBN News.
Marcos' visit seeks to "maximize the full potential of PH-Japan strategic partnership in all its aspects and facilitate closer defense, security, political, economic, and people-to-people ties," the DFA earlier said.
Former Defense officer-in-charge Jose Faustino Jr. in November last year said the possible VFA with Japan would not be a showcase of the Philippines' position in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are claimed by China.
It would be primarily used for the training of Filipino and Japanese troops to conduct exercises in the Philippines.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) provides rules for the rotation of thousands of US troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises. It has assumed additional importance as the United States and its allies contend with an increasingly assertive China.
— with a report from Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse