Japan PM Kishida: cooperating with Philippines, US to protect South China Sea

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) -Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Saturday his country, the Philippines and the United States were cooperating to protect the freedom of the South China Sea as he committed to help enhance Manila’s security capabilities.

“In the South China Sea, trilateral cooperation to protect the freedom of the sea is under way,” Kishida, on an official visit, said in an address before the Philippine congress in the capital Manila.

Kishida and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr agreed on Friday to start negotiations on a reciprocal troop access deal to strengthen military cooperation as China becomes increasingly assertive in the region.

The Philippines and Japan, two of the United States’ closest Asian allies, have taken a strong line against what they see as aggressive behaviour by Chinese vessels amid decades-old disputes over maritime sovereignty.

Last month China and the Philippines traded accusations over a collision in the disputed waters of the South China Sea as Chinese vessels blocked Philippine boats supplying forces there.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, including parts of the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China’s claims had no legal basis. Japan does not have any claim to the South China Sea, but has a maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea.

“Japan will continue to contribute to the enhancement of the Philippines’ security capabilities, thereby contributing to regional peace and stability,” Kishida said.

Japan in March observed U.S.-Philippine military drills, and in June the Philippine and Japanese coast guards trained together for the first time.

“Through these efforts, let us protect the maritime order, which is governed by laws and rules, not by force,” said Kishida, who in December unveiled Japan’s biggest military build-up as it looks to counter China’s growing military might.

Kishida said Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with coastal surveillance radars, the first cooperation project in the world under its Official Security Assistance (OSA) programme, aimed at helping boost deterrence capabilities of Tokyo’s partner countries.

The radars will be placed in five separate areas along the Philippines coast, Kyodo news reported on Saturday citing an unnamed Japanese senior government official.

The report said the radars would be a fixed type and used by the Filipino navy for coastal surveillance, but did not give further details on where the radars would be placed.

Kishida made a stop at the Philippine Coast Guard on Saturday before leaving Manila to head to Malaysia.

(Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila; Additional reporting by Sakura Murakami in Tokyo; Editing by William Mallard and Michael Perry)