June 4, 2015 / 10:33 AM / 5 years ago

Tokyo, Manila boost security ties as China pushes maritime claims

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and the Philippines agreed to strengthen security ties and discussed transferring military equipment and technology on Thursday in Tokyo’s latest move to strengthen cooperation with Southeast Asian countries to counter China’s maritime ambitions.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino (R) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before their meeting at Akasaka Palace state guest house in Tokyo, Thursday, June 4, 2015. REUTERS/Shizuo Kambayashi/Pool

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Philippine President Benigno Aquino also agreed to expand joint training and exercises between their militaries and to co-operate in building up the Philippines Coast Guard.

China has become increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, building artificial islands in areas over which the Philippines and other countries have rival claims.

“Regarding the South China Sea issue, we’ve reaffirmed that we are concerned about the large-scale reclamation and that we are opposed to unilateral attempts to change the status quo,” Abe told a news conference after meeting Aquino.

Japan, also embroiled in a dispute with China over a group of East China Sea islets, last week reached a similar deal with Malaysia. In May, held its first naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

Under Abe’s leadership, Japan last year eased its restrictions on arms exports.

Tokyo already has agreements on military equipment and technology transfers with the United States, Britain, Australia and France and a similar pact with Manila is needed to allow it to export to the Philippines.

The Philippines has already handed the Tokyo government a list of Japanese military equipment it wants to acquire such as P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft, a senior Philippine naval officer has said.

Japanese Defense minister Gen Nakatani has repeatedly said the situation in the South China Sea is a challenge to Japan’s security and that Tokyo needs to consider how to respond.

Bills being debated in Japan’s parliament would ease the pacifist constitution’s constraints on the military’s overseas activities, raising the possibility that Tokyo could get dragged into action in the South China Sea in support of U.S. forces.

On the economic front, Japan on Thursday agreed to cooperate with the Philippines on transport infrastructure development projects in and around Manila, including the 300-billion-yen ($2.4 billion) North-South Commuter Railway project.

Before the meeting with Abe, Aquino attended a signing ceremony on a deal to provide patrol ships to the Philippines Coast Guard.

Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo, Linda Sieg; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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