MANILA — Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri on Thursday urged the Philippine government to "begin exploratory discussions" on a possible Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Japan following President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s official visit to the country.
"Speaking with Ambassador Koshikawa Kazuhiko last year, I had brought up the idea of pursuing a VFA with Japan," said Zubiri at a media interview at the Okura Hotel in Tokyo.
Zubiri is in Japan as part of the Philippine delegation for the President's official visit.
Zubiri sees the President's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to be an "opportune time" to finally go into initial talks about the agreement.
"It makes strategic sense. Japan is an ally, and with ongoing territorial disputes over our waters, we stand to benefit from stronger security cooperation with our allies," Zubiri noted.
"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... The VFA will strengthen our partnership even further," he added.
The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. Experts say without it, other bilateral defense agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented.
Speaking to reporters on board the presidential plane en route to Japan, Marcos said the Japanese government was helping the Philippine Coast Guard on equipment and other capacity-building measures. But he said that there was no formal talks yet between Manila and Tokyo on a possible defense cooperation deal.
Marcos' trip comes a week after Manila announced a deal giving US troops access to another 4 bases in the country, and with Japan and the Philippines already in talks on a key defense pact.
The so-called Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) would allow the countries to deploy troops on each others' territory for training and other operations.
Japan, which invaded and occupied the Philippines during World War II, has recently inked similar pacts with Britain and Australia.
Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are not expected to complete negotiations on the RAA deal immediately, but they will likely agree to measures aimed at speeding up military deployments for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The 2 leaders are taking an incremental approach towards the RAA, probably to avoid provoking Beijing, Renato DeCastro, distinguished professor in the International Studies Department at De La Salle University in Manila, told AFP.
"Both countries are still very much aware that they have touched a sensitive nerve in China (by) creating the possibility of an Asian encirclement of China," DeCastro said.
In Beijing's view, "this might the beginning of an Asian NATO. Because you really have Asian countries strengthening and enhancing their security partnerships."
Before departing on Wednesday, Marcos called his trip to Japan an "essential" part of a drive to strengthen partnerships "with major countries in the region amid a challenging global environment".
He said he was "actively seeking" collaborations with Tokyo in areas including "agriculture, renewable energy, digital transformation, infrastructure, defense and security".
He and Kishida are expected to sign 7 agreements covering those areas on a trip that will also see Marcos meet Japan's emperor on Thursday afternoon.
Worried about Beijing's growing assertiveness on Taiwan and bases in the disputed South China Sea, Manilla has been repairing ties with Washington that were fractured in recent years.
Given its proximity to Taiwan and its surrounding waters, cooperation from the Philippines would be key in the event of a conflict with China.
Japan last year announced a major defense overhaul, pledging to double defense spending to the NATO standard of two percent of GDP by 2027 and designating China the "greatest strategic challenge ever" to its security.
Japan is the Philippines' biggest diplomatic source of active development assistance, according to Manila, and its second-largest trading partner.
It is also the only country to have a bilateral free trade agreement with the Philippines.
— With a report from Agence France-Presse