The Philippines sought patrol ships and communications equipment from Japan to better secure its territory in meetings Thursday of their top diplomats, who expressed alarm over their countries' territorial conflicts with China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Japan will consider giving 10 patrol vessels and a communications system to Manila's coast guard. He said he and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also discussed ways to bolster trade, investment, tourism and maritime security cooperation.
Japan has wrangled with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan controls the territory, which is also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Tensions over the tiny islands intensified after Tokyo bought them from their Japanese private owners in September, prompting Chinese protesters to hold demonstrations and boycott Japanese products.
In addition to a long-unresolved dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines figured in a tense standoff last year over Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground, which sparked a heated exchange of words and strained relations.
Many have expressed fears that Asia's territorial disputes could spark the region's next armed conflict.
Del Rosario said he and Kishida expressed "mutual concern" over the disputes and aggressive steps by China to assert its territorial claims. The two sides discussed the possibility of learning from each other's strategies for dealing with the conflicts peacefully based on international law, he said.
"I think we all understand that the assertions being made by China in terms of their nine-dash line claim, for example ... pose threats to the stability of the region," del Rosario said, referring to an official Chinese map with broken lines that depict Beijing's claim of virtually the entire South China Sea.
"We also need to be able to address the possibility that the freedom of navigation would be adversely impacted," del Rosario told a news conference after meeting with Kishida.
Kishida's spokeswoman, Naoko Saiki, said Japan was "very much interested and concerned" with recent developments in the South China Sea, including China's recent actions in the region. "I think the rule of law has to be maintained and enhanced," she said in an interview.
Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, Saiki said, "is determined to act very pro-actively as a responsible member of the international community to maintain and strengthen the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, whom Kishida also met, thinks a "stronger Japan, acting as a counterbalance in the region, would help promote stability," del Rosario said.
The Philippine request for coast guard "multi-role response vessels" and a communications system needs to be endorsed by Japan's Foreign Ministry before approval by the Japanese government. Once approved, the first patrol vessels could be delivered as early as this year, del Rosario said.
The Philippines has one of Asia's weakest militaries. It has turned to the United States, a defense treaty-ally, and other countries to modernize its navy, air force and coast guard and better secure its extensive coastlines and territorial waters, including potentially oil- and gas-rich areas in and near the South China Sea.
Although it has vowed to pursue its territorial claims peacefully, the Philippine government has said it needs to develop a minimum defense capability to discourage poaching and intrusions by foreign vessels.