By Marielle Lucenio
The Philippine and Japanese air forces will hold their first-ever joint exercises next week, Tokyo’s embassy said Thursday, signaling a deepening of bilateral ties amid the nations’ tensions with Beijing over territorial disputes in the South and East China seas.
A statement from the Japanese embassy here did not mention China but said Tokyo was willing to work with Manila to maintain a “free and strong Indo Pacific” region, which is inclusive and based on democratic values and territorial integrity.
“The Japan Air Self-Defense Force … will conduct a Bilateral Training on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief … with the Philippine Air Force (PAF) on July 5-8, 2021, at Clark Air Base, Mabalacat City Pampanga,” the statement said.
“This is the first Air-to-Air bilateral training between the two air forces, which will mark a significant milestone for defense cooperation between Japan and the Philippines.”
These joint exercises come as the two countries are set to mark the 10th anniversary of a strategic partnership, said Maj. Mizuno Masaki, unit commander of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force.
“Japan and the Philippines are both natural disaster-prone countries and there [is] so much we can share on disaster relief operations for saving lives and alleviating the suffering of people in need,” Mizuno said in the statement.
During the exercises, Japan will deploy a training unit of its Air Support Command – a C-130H cargo aircraft along with its personnel, the embassy said.
The unit will hold a four-day joint training session with its Philippine counterparts to boost the ability to operate together in delivering relief goods and evacuating people in emergency situations.
“As a strategic partner and friend of the Philippines, we hope that our bilateral training will contribute to further strengthen the cooperation between our two Air Forces,” Mizuno said.
These joint exercises come after Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte agreed in May to boost diplomatic relations and press for an unfettered Indo-Pacific.
Both nations are locked in separate territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, respectively.
“Japan reiterates the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) which is inclusive and based on the rule of law, democratic values, territorial integrity, transparency, and peaceful resolution of disputes,” the embassy statement said.
Japan intends to work with the Philippines to achieve these goals, the embassy added.
Both nations are also U.S. allies, and Japan is part of the Washington-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) on the Indo-Pacific region, an alliance Beijing has called anti-China.
Potential F-16 sales to Philippines
Meanwhile, Manila has been embroiled in tensions with Beijing over the presence of Chinese ships within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the waterway since April.
Amid this latest row, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced last week that the State Department had approved a possible sale of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to the Philippines.
This includes possible sales of F-16 fighter jets and related equipment worth U.S. $2.43 billion, and AGM-84 Harpoon and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles worth $162 million, approvals that are seen as countering Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea.
The approval notices came 10 days after the Philippines put off by another six months a decision on whether to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement, a key military pact with the U.S.
On Thursday, John Law, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. embassy in the Philippines, said Washington hoped to continue with the pact, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported.
He also said that “U.S. equipment is deemed the most appropriate for Philippine Armed Forces.”
The DSCA said the potential sales would boost “strategic partner” Philippines’ defense capabilities.
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a strategic partner that continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in South East Asia,” the agency said in a statement on June 24.
“This capability will provide the Philippine Air Force the ability to employ a highly reliable and effective system to counter or deter maritime aggressions, coastal blockades, and amphibious assaults,” it said about the Harpoon missiles.
According to the website of Defense News, notifications from the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency do not serve as guarantees that sales will happen.
The U.S. Congress has to also approve the sale, after which a potential foreign customer can enter into sale negotiations.
Since Washington announced the potential arms sale to the Philippines, senior government officials in Manila have not yet responded to BenarNews requests for confirmation about the possible deal.