Manila, Jul 8: Japan and the Philippines signed a key defence pact on Monday allowing the deployment of Japanese forces for joint drills in the Southeast Asian nation that came under brutal Japanese occupation in World War II but is now building an alliance with Tokyo as both face an increasingly assertive China.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement, which similarly allows Filipino forces to enter Japan for joint combat training, was signed by Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa in a Manila ceremony witnessed by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. It would take effect after ratification by the countries' legislatures, Philippine and Japanese officials said.

Kamikawa called the signing “a groundbreaking achievement" that should further boost defence cooperation between the countries.

The Japanese and Philippine officials “expressed serious concern over the dangerous and escalatory actions by China” in Second Thomas Shoal, the scene of a recent confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces in the South China Sea. The busy sea passage is a key global trade route which has been claimed virtually in its entirety by China but also contested in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

They underscored in a joint statement the need “for the international community to speak out on the importance of maintaining and strengthening the free and open international order based on the rule of law” in the disputed waters.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said “the Asia-Pacific region does not need military blocs, let alone small groupings that instigate bloc confrontations or a new Cold War” and reminded Japan of its atrocities during World War II in Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines.

“Japan should seriously reflect on its history of aggression and act cautiously in the field of military security,” the spokesperson said.

The defense pact with the Philippines, which includes live-fire drills, is the first to be forged by Japan in Asia. Japan signed similar accords with Australia in 2022 and with Britain in 2023.

Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan has taken steps to boost its security and defensive firepower, including a counterstrike capability that breaks from the country's postwar principle of focusing only on self-defence. It's doubling defence spending in a five-year period to 2027 to bolster its military power and make Japan the world's third-biggest military spender after the United States and China.

Many of Japan's Asian neighbours, including the Philippines, came under Japanese aggression until its defeat in World War II, and Tokyo's efforts to strengthen its military role and spending could be a sensitive issue. Japan and the Philippines, however, have steadily deepened defence and security ties.

Kishida's moves dovetail with Marcos' effort to forge security alliances to bolster the Philippine military's limited ability to defend its territorial interests in the South China Sea.

The United States has also been strengthening an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in any future confrontation over Taiwan, and reassure its Asian allies. Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies of the US and their leaders held three-way talks in April at the White House, where President Joe Biden renewed Washington's “ironclad” commitment to defend Japan and the Philippines.

Japan has had a longstanding territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. Chinese and Philippine coast guard and navy ships, meanwhile, have been involved in a series of tense confrontations in the South China Sea since last year.

In the worst confrontation so far, Chinese coast guard personnel armed with knives, spears and an ax aboard motorboats repeatedly rammed and destroyed two Philippine navy supply vessels on June 17 in a chaotic faceoff at disputed Second Thomas Shoal that injured several Filipino sailors. Chinese coast guard personnel seized seven navy rifles.

The Japanese and Philippine officials said China's actions at the shoal “obstructed freedom of navigation and disrupted supply lines, thus, increasing tensions”.

Kihara said in a news conference that Japan “has firmly opposed the dangerous and coercive use of maritime security agencies and maritime militia vessels”.

The Philippines strongly protested the Chinese coast guard's actions and demanded USD 1 million for the damage and the return of the rifles. China accused the Philippines of instigating the violence, saying the Filipino sailors strayed into what it called Chinese territorial waters despite warnings.

Japan and the United States were among the first to express alarm over the Chinese actions and call on Beijing to abide by international laws. Washington is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea. (AP)