Japan-Philippines Defense Pact May Worsen South China Sea Tension


Dedi Dinarto, Research Assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada

On February 29, 2016, the signing of a defense pact between Japan and the Philippines confirmed as a strategic security partnership that does not refer to any context or circumstance, instead for increasing defense equipment supply. In the news reported by The Jakarta Post (re: Japan signs pact to supply defense equipment to Philippines), Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin stated that this move is not against certain country instead of strengthening security cooperation as both the US allies. However, this momentum should be seen beyond the mere statement that the signing of such a defense pact could exacerbate the situation in the South China Sea.

Under the reign of Xi, China’s foreign policy has been directed for the active participation and involvement at the international level. Xi’s diplomatic mapping orientation showing the possibility to override the status-quo by putting national interests as the main objectives at the global level, and take the geopolitical role that focuses on Asia.

In other words, he tries to show that China is able to become a revisionist power that does not merely consider and follow the American-driven international political structure instead of reorganizing international politics based on China’s national interests.

National security as one of the agenda prioritized by China has to be seen interestingly. Closely related to the modernization of the military that carried and operated since 2000 until today, there is a reason why such modernization needs to be done. The importance of military modernization cannot be separated from the trajectory of China as an international victim of foreign invasion. Through this historical reflection, Xi in his speech underlined the importance of carrying the national security against every external intervention.


Both the Philippines and Japan are parties to the border dispute with China in the South China Sea and East China Sea. History proves that the conflict between China and the Philippines has been initiated since the incident of Cloma at Itu Aba Island in 1956. In fact, in the historical trajectory, the Philippines has experienced an economic embargo at that time China strictly prohibited the import of bananas as a valuable commodity from the Philippines. To date, both governments still insist on unilateral claim to the Spratly Islands regardless the initiative of the Philippines to invite China’s complying on the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s dispute mechanism process.

On the other hand, the rising tension between China and Japan related to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is also experiencing the same conditions without any significant resolution. Each of these countries consider that the area is not included in the boundaries that fall into dispute. However, military contacts between China and Japan are common. The latest data revealed 117 cases of military contacts between the two countries jet aircraft in the third quarter of 2015. This issue remains the main reason why the political tensions between the two countries cannot be resolved easily.

However, both the status of the Philippines and Japan as US allies may worsen dispute. In the context of the South China Sea, relations between China and the US were strained when the US conducted freedom of navigation (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. Allegations that the Chinese claims made about sovereignty is disputed by the United States Navy as a form of blaming international maritime law. In this case, the US puts real deprecation rejecting of the island reclamation project and the militarization of the South China Sea by China. Under these conditions, China may appears to look at the ‘triangle cooperation’ of US-Japan-Philippines as a threat to the stability of the region as well as the intervention for China’s long-projection structure to change world politics.

At least, there are two ways to find a resolution amidst high tension in the South China Sea. Firstly, China should communicate to external party about the real intention of island reclamation. It cannot be neglected that the rising tension in South China Sea is basically determined by lack of communication between disputed and external parties.

Secondly, both US and China has to enforce the strategic security cooperation in order to reduce the skepticism from both side’s indistinguishable intention.

Thirdly, the needs of recalling ASEAN as a regional platform. The ASEAN member states should make clear their perspective towards China’s aggressiveness. Not only put concern under every ASEAN’s statement, but also establishing real initiative for resolution reviewing the significant progress of Marty Natalegawa’s initiative on the South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Photo source: https://blueblitzkrieg.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/admiral-panteleyev.jpg