Institutionalizing the Japan-Philippine Relationship through Security, Economic, and Social Cooperation


Security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines is strengthening against the background of improved US-Philippine ties and China’s increasing regional presence. Enhanced Tokyo-Manila relations in the economic and social spheres build on increased urgency shown by political leaders in both countries.

The year 2023 witnessed the rapid strengthening of US-Philippine relations under new president Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.(*1) This included successive visits by American high-ranking officials to the Philippines, and the opening of cites in the Philippines based on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries. On June 16, the first-ever meeting of the national security advisors of the United States, Japan, and the Philippines also took place in Tokyo. The United States reaffirmed its “ironclad alliance commitments” to both countries, while all three NSAs agreed to enhanced trilateral cooperation and response capabilities.

Even setting aside the presence of the United States, though, Japan’s bilateral relations with the Philippines also took a step forward in 2023, showing steady institutionalization in the areas of economic and security cooperation and social development. In the economic sphere, for example, the bilateral trade relationship is buttressed by the Japan-Philippines Economic Cooperation Agreement, The JPEPA is to date the only bilateral economic treaty signed by the Philippines, a sign of the importance it places on its relationship with Japan. Japan-Philippines relations actually advanced during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte (2016–22), who was outspokenly anti-American and was accused of human rights abuses and undermining the rule of law in the Philippines by his “war on drugs.”

The Philippines’ relations with China and the United States are often complicated by domestic politics. By contrast, relations with Japan have developed steadily despite the institutional fragility and political instability that often characterizes the domestic situation in the Philippines. Below I focus on the strengthening foundations of the Japan-Philippines relationship that explain this steady, and often somewhat surprising, improvement. In doing so, we can see the consolidation of relations between Japan and the Philippines, but how cooperation has supported institution-building in the Philippines itself. I look at three particular areas below: economic, security, and social-sector cooperation.

Institutionalizing Economic Cooperation

The bilateral economic relationship is supported by the JPEPA, which entered into force in 2008. This agreement played an important role in consolidating economic connections while underpinning strengthened cooperation in other fields. In addition to the JPEPA, economic cooperation between Manila and Tokyo was also enhanced in 2017 by the establishment of the Japan-Philippines High Level Joint Committee on Infrastructure Development and Economic Cooperation. Building on a January 2017 visit by then Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, the first Joint Committee meeting took place in March 2017 in Tokyo. The Japanese side was led by a special advisor to the prime minister of Japan and the Philippines was represented by the secretary of finance and the head of the Philippines’ National Economic Development Authority, an independent cabinet-level agency responsible for coordinating and overseeing economic development and planning and handling incoming overseas development assistance.

At the first Joint Committee meeting, held during the term of then President Duterte, Manila and Tokyo agreed to strengthen the capacity of the Philippines Department of Health to assist with relapse prevention among narcotics users and to develop infrastructure in the conflict-prone western Mindanao region based on the project for “Improvement of Equipment for Power Distribution in Bangsamoro Area.” Both items aligned with the domestic agenda of President Duterte, who had a strong support base in Mindanao and campaigned on an uncompromising antidrug message.

The Joint Committee has met 14 times since 2017, with the most recent meeting taking place in Tokyo in August 2023. The subsequent press release confirmed the progress of joint infrastructure development projects (including railroads), maritime security capacity building, and progress in the Mindanao peace process. The choice of participants to lead Joint Committee discussions is notable. Rather than being led by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the NEDA secretary, both sides are led by higher-level political actors—a special advisor to the Japanese prime minister and the minister of finance for the Philippines. The Joint Committee is therefore an institution that goes beyond the normal working-level development cooperation agencies and demonstrates higher-level political urgency.

Deepening Security Cooperation

Japan-Philippines security relations are also in the process of being institutionalized. As of 2023, both countries have agreed to accelerate negotiations on a Reciprocal Access Agreement. For Manila, this RAA would be its third such agreement, following those with the United States and Australia. These agreements are designed to facilitate the procedures and set guidelines for interaction when military forces visit partner countries for training and joint exercises. The Philippines agreement with the United States is called the Visiting Forces Agreement, while the agreement with Australia is called the Status of Forces Visiting Agreement. The difference in naming reflects Japanese preferences rather than substantive differences—Japan has in recent years agreed to RAAs with Britain and Australia.

Security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines is not new, however. In recent years, cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or HA/DR, has stood out. For example, following the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the central Philippines in 2014, Japan sent its largest international emergency relief team (approximately 1,200 personnel) alongside Self-Defense Force destroyers, transport ships, supply ships, helicopters, and transport aircraft.(*2) This would lead to the Japanese Ministry of Defense and the Philippines’ Department of Defense signing “Terms of Reference” for HA/DR cooperation when President Marcos visited Japan in February 2023.

In April 2022, at the end of the Duterte administration, Japan and the Philippines also institutionalized their own “2+2” meetings. These are regular ministerial-level dialogues focused on defense and foreign affairs. At the first meeting held in Tokyo, the four defense and foreign affairs ministers discussed regional affairs and reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law at sea. They also agreed to promote further bilateral cooperation, make progress on the RAA, and enhance maritime cooperation in the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea in the southwest Philippines. Tokyo and Manila have also agreed to the transfer of defense equipment based on the implementation of “Official Security Assistance,” a new category of overseas assistance dedicated to building the capacity of foreign armed forces and related agencies through the provision of equipment, expert advice, and infrastructural support.

These capacity-building activities build on similar ongoing activities over the last two decades in the nonmilitary, nontraditional security domain. Beginning in 1990s, the Japan Coast Guard has dispatched experts to the Philippine Coast Guard and forged relations between JCG and its Philippine counterpart. Japan has also provided communication systems and patrol vessels including maritime law enforcement purposes.(*3)

In 2015, the Japan Coast Guard Academy, JICA, and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, GRIPS collaboratively established a one-year master’s degree program called the Maritime Safety and Security Policy Program for midcareer and junior officers of maritime law enforcement agencies throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Already Japanese graduates of the program are serving at Japanese embassy in Manila and at PCG Headquarters. Their work alongside current PCG officers who have completed the same program promises to strengthen the foundation for future cooperation between these increasingly important agencies responsible for managing a tense maritime security environment.

Working for Social Development

Bilateral peacebuilding and social-sector development and institutionalization have also progressed alongside improved Japan-Philippines relations. This is particularly true in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. Mindanao was not only the site of ongoing armed conflict between the central government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but also among local clans. Given this insecurity, JICA in 2006, under the leadership of then President Ogata Sadako, launched the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD).(*4)

J-BIRD is a “whole of government” initiative by Japan to assist socio-economic development in Mindanao. Tokyo has remained committed to providing aid to the region when tensions and even armed conflict have threatened the peace process. This has enabled Japanese agencies to gain the trust of actors including armed rebel organizations. For example, when the peace process became deadlocked and security worsened in 2008, Western aid agencies evacuated their staff. JICA, however, increased its staff from one to two, demonstrating its support and commitment to socioeconomically stabilizing the region and gaining the trust of MILF on the ground. This is one of the reasons why Japan was chosen as the site for the first meeting between the Philippines president and MILF leaders in 2014.

In 2021, Ochiai Naoyuki, a JICA official who has worked in various capacities within the Japanese government, was appointed advisor to the chief minister of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, an organization dedicated to realizing autonomous government for the region in 2025. Although organizations like the World Bank, the European Union, and the Malaysian government have all been involved in Mindanao, Ochiai is the only one to have gained the support of MILF to this point. Once the transitional government realizes a formal government in the near future, Japan’s involvement in Mindanao will only enhance the institutionalization of Japan-Philippines relations.

Various Japanese agencies across government have been involved in upholding and improving relations between Tokyo and Manila both at working and political levels. The above summary makes it clear that these efforts represent independent efforts undertaken by the Japanese government and go beyond Japan’s cooperation with the United States. Unlike the Philippines’ relations with the United States and China, Japan-Philippines relations have incrementally progressed while avoiding becoming a domestic political football in the Philippines. The effort and practitioners on both sides have realized significant success and are worthy of recognition.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Following a December 17, 2023, summit meeting, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., at back left, and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, at back right, attend a ceremony at the Kantei in Tokyo marking the Memorandum of Cooperation between the Japan Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard. © Jiji.)

(*1) ^ Takagi, Yusuke ”Diplomacy of the Philippines as an Emerging State: Strengthening Relations with the US, Deepening Regional Diplomacy, and Enhancing Internationalist Diplomacy (Published in Japanese)“ International Affairs, No. 714.

(*2) ^ Yamaguchi, Noboru, “Civil-Military Cooperation in a Disaster Relief Mission: A Case of Typhoon Hayen (Published in Japanese)” In Tomohito Shinoda ed. Japan-US Alliance and Southeast Asia: Beyond the Traditional Security. (Tokyo: Chikura Shobo, 2018)

(*3) ^ Tarriela, Jay. The Rise of the White Hulls in Southeast Asia: The Philippine Coast Guard Case (Ph.D. dissertation, GRIPS, 2021).

(*4) ^ Ochiai, Nobuyuki “Peace and Development in Mindanao, Philippines (published in Japanese) (Saeki Insatsu Shuppanjigyo, 2019).

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