- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Japan signed an agreement Monday to supply defense equipment to the Philippines, the first such Japanese defense pact in a region where the U.S. allies have been alarmed by China’s advance in disputed territories.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the agreement he signed with the Japanese ambassador to Manila, Kazuhide Ishikawa, provides a framework for the supply of defense equipment and technology and will allow the Asian countries to carry out joint research and development projects.

Future talks will determine what defense equipment could be supplied, although Gazmin told reporters without elaborating that Japan has initially offered a surveillance aircraft.

“This agreement would really substantiate the Philippines and Japan being strategic partners,” Gazmin said in remarks during the signing ceremony at the Department of Defense in metropolitan Manila. “Let me stress that what underpins this agreement is not only our desire to enhance our respective defense capabilities but also to contribute to regional peace and stability.”

Neither side mentioned China’s increasingly assertive behavior in disputed areas but that has been a major security concern for both countries, which are close American allies. “It’s not directed against any country,” Gazmin said of the new defense deal on Saturday.

The Philippines has turned to the United States, and now Japan, as it scrambles to modernize its ill-equipped military after territorial disputes with China began escalating four years ago. Japan has a separate territorial spat with China that has flared on and off in the East China Sea.

The Philippines’ security aspirations dovetail with Japan’s nascent steps to be a larger security presence in the region, where memories remain of its brutal World War II invasions.

The two countries have openly brought their security and political ties to new levels, including by holding joint naval search and rescue drills last year.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have swapped visits and vowed to intensify defense cooperation, sparking talks about a possible security pact that will allow Japanese forces to hold larger drills with Filipino troops in the Philippines. The Philippines has signed such visiting forces accords with the United States and Australia.

Last year, Japan’s parliament approved contentious legislation that enhances the role of the country’s military by loosening post-World War II constraints. Its military can now defend its allies even when the country isn’t under attack and work more closely with other nations.

Japan has forged similar pacts with the U.S. and Australia, but the Philippines is the first Southeast Asian country to have such a defense deal with Tokyo, Gazmin said.

Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, a major conduit for world trade. The U.S. lays no claims to the waters, but says it has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and non-use of force and coercion to assert claims.

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