Philippines Backs Rearming of Japan

Container terminal in Tokyo, Japan.
Koji Sasahara
Container terminal in Tokyo, Japan.

The Philippines would strongly support a rearmed Japan shorn of its pacifist constitution as a counterweight to the growing military assertiveness of China, according to the Philippine foreign minister.

"We would welcome that very much," Albert del Rosario told the Financial Times in an interview. "We are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor."

The unusual statement, which risks upsetting Beijing, reflects alarm in Manila at what it sees as Chinese provocation over the South China Sea, virtually all of which is claimed by Beijing. It also comes days before an election in Japan that could see the return as prime minister of Shinzo Abe, who is committed to revising Japan's pacifist constitution and to beefing up its military.

A constitutional revision that upgraded Japan's Self-Defence Forces to a fully fledged military would allow it far more freedom to operate and could change the military balance in Asia. In spite of its official pacifism, Japan's armed forces do not lack for hardware. Its navy has about 50 large surface ships, compared with China's 70-odd.

Support from other Asian nations for a rearmed Japan could embolden Mr Abe to change the constitution.

Beijing has long raised the spectre of a return of Japanese militarism. The attitude towards Japanese rearmament in the Philippines, itself colonised by Japan, suggests regional fears of an assertive China may be beginning to trump memories of Japan's aggressive wartime actions.

This month, the Philippines objected strongly to an announcement that maritime police from China's Hainan province would intercept ships entering what it considered its territorial waters.

Beijing has started issuing passports that include a map of its "nine-dash" claim to almost the entire South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Indonesia. The Philippines has refused to stamp the new passports in protest.

"The Philippines has contended all along that the nine-dash claim is an excessive claim that violates international law," Mr del Rosario said.

Southeast Asian countries concerned about what they see as an abrupt change in China's "peaceful-rise" diplomacy have welcomed the renewed commitment to the region by the US in the form of its "pivot". Mr del Rosario said Manila had agreed to more US ship visits and more joint training exercises.

The region is also closely watching Beijing's stand-off with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu in China.

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Regional countries have struggled to present a united front against China, which prefers to deal with each capital bilaterally. Last June, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to issue a final communiqu after Cambodia refused to endorse language referring to recent naval stand-offs with China.

In July, Japan and the Philippines signed a five-year agreement to strengthen military co-operation though exchanges of personnel and technology. Japan is providing 12 new patrol ships for the Philippine coast guard, financed with a combination of soft loans and foreign aid grants.