Will Japan ‘aid’ worsen reg’l maritime dispute?

Japan’s entry into a regional maritime dispute in the shadow of two bristling superpowers can only worsen security concerns, say former senators and foreign policy experts.

Former senators Rene Saguisag (left) and Victor Ziga

“It may exacerbate the problems,” said former senator Rena Saguisag, who pointed out that the Russians are joining the fray, with exercises scheduled in the disputed areas by 2016.

“That’s going to be another harmful provocation,” Saguisag said at the June 8 launch of P1NAS, a new coalition that seeks to promote an independent foreign policy for the Philippines.

READ: Citizen diplomacy needed amid superpowers clash

The former senator, who was part of the Senate bloc that voted in 1991 to oust the largest American bases outside of the US homeland, said the presence of foreign troops is not necessarily bad. He cited the battalion of military engineers sent by South Korea to assist communities devastated by super typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

It is when countries send troops to promote belligerent interests that security conditions become dangerous, Saguisag explained.

Modernization woes

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, former senators Leticia Ramos-Shahani and Rene Saguisag at the launch of P1NAS, a movement to push for an independent Philippine foreign policy. Photo by inday espina-varona
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, former senators Leticia Ramos-Shahani and Rene Saguisag at the launch of P1NAS, a movement to push for an independent Philippine foreign policy. Photo by inday espina-varona

Former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, who gave a “critical yes” vote for the retention of the US bases, agreed with Saguisag.

Both joined P1NAS to send a message to the powers now manuevering in disputed waters that form one of the most important global maritime highways.

“I was for modernization of the Armed Forces,” Shahani said, criticizing successive Philippine governments for failing to use bases privatization earnings to upgrade facilities and equipment.

“Where has the money gone?” the former senator asked.

Independence and self-reliance are important, Shahani said. China and other countries will always turn covetous eyes on the Philippines because of its rich resources, including vast quantities of natural gas and minerals.

She said even a victory in a UN-backed tribunal hearing a case filed by the Philippines against China is no guarantee for peace. 

Shahani also gave this advice to Mr. Aquino – who spoke of multi-generational friendship during his recent Japanese trip: “Don’t forget they (Japanese) invaded us.”

The hall fell silent when Shahani recalled how she witnessed the Japanese takeover of Manila on Jan. 1, 1942.
“I will never forget. I was 13 years old. I stood on Taft Avenue on Jan. 1, 1942. I watched the Japanese enter the Open City of Manila. And I cried. To see foreign troops enter your native land is one of the most humiliating experiences. I hope you will never experience that.”
“There is nothing so humiliating as to see your home invaded,” Shahani said.

Bristling powers

President Benigno Aquino III has expressed support for Japan’s planned review of a pacifist constitution to improve contribution to “collective self-defense” in the region.

Japan has offered to help beef up the Philippines’ supply of patrol vessels. READ – Palace Sees More Japanese Military Aid to PH

Leaders of the two countries have also broached the possibility of crafting a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) for Japan, which would give the East Asian country the same controversial privileges granted the American military.

The Philippines has an  Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States. Reports say there are plans to allow the operation of eight new military bases once constitutional issues are resolved.

Philippine and US officials often frame these pacts as a way of bolstering the defense capacity of a weaker ally. But aid is not automatic. Critics say the US is only out to ensure free use of one of the world’s busiest maritime highways with no commitment to upholding Philippine claims on disputed waters.

Even Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang acknowledges that American commitments under EDCA do not include defense of the West Philippine Sea

Bad Memories

The VFA is controversial because critics believe it bends over for foreign troops that misbehave or commit crimes in the Philippines.

The issue is bound to become more critical where the Japanese are involved because of the atrocities that occurred during that country’s World War II occupation of the Philippines.

A study by the Philippine government from 1997 to 2002 estimates there were over 1,000 enslaved women in this country. They were taken to some 17 comfort stations scattered all over Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The Digital Museum on the Comfort Women Issue lists the locations of their enslavement, with an accompanying map.

A special United Nations-commissioned report has found that the government of Japan orchestrated the enslavement of “comfort women” as part of their policy of war. Filipinos, to be sure, were not the only victims. Koreans, Chinese, Malays, Indonesians, Burmese — no one escaped the cruelty. READ : The Unforgotten: Valor and Our Comfort Women.

Japan has not officially apologized for the comfort women outrage in many Asian countries, including Korea, China and other Southeast Asian nations.


Japan is also strengthening its military ties with the United States. The two countries released a new set of security guidelines in April, integrating ballistic missile defense systems and giving Japan a bigger security role.

Malaysia, meanwhile, has agreed to strengthen security ties with Japan, with the goal of transferring defense equipment and technology.

The Diplomat reports upcoming naval exercises by Russia and China in disputed waters.

“Russia and China intend to hold naval exercises in the South China Sea, according to comments by Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. The exercises will include Russia’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region, though Antonov did not clarify which countries, beyond China, would participate in the exercises. Russia maintains close relations with several Southeast Asian states, especially with Vietnam, for which Russia is an important provider of arms. China, however, is involved in territorial disputes with four Southeast Asian states — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei — over the sovereignty of various islands and reefs in the South China Sea.”

Both Saguisag and Shahani know aid is a fact of life, given the disparity in wealth and powers among nations. However, they want the Philippine government to be more discriminating and judicious in accepting and using military aid.

They fear that legitimate concerns about China’s muscle-flexing could fuel a greater cycle of dependency that other countries, like Japan, could exploit to strengthen their own interests.

“We cannot be at the begging end forver,” said Shahani, who urged Mr. Aquino to stress that any military aid would be used for an independent foreign policy.

“We must know how to draw the line,” she added. “An independent foreign policy is not immediate. I have no illusions about it. But let us not lose sight of the long-term goal.”

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