Japan's prime minister tours Philippine patrol ship and boosts alliances amid maritime tensions

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Japan’s prime minister boarded a Philippine patrol ship on Saturday in a symbolic show of support as Tokyo shores up regional alliances to counter China's assertiveness in maritime disputes with its neighbors.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the Japanese-built BRP Teresa Magbanua, which was docked at the Manila harbor, capped his two-day visit to Manila. He held talks with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday to strengthen defense ties amid their countries’ shared concern over China’s behavior.

"I truly hope that this will lead to regional peace and prosperity as well as a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Keshida told top Philippine government and coast guard officials aboard the Magbanua, one of the two biggest patrol ships of Manila’s underfunded coast guard.

Japan has provided a dozen patrol ships to the Philippines in recent years, including the 97-meter (318-foot) -long Magbanua. Manila’s coast guard largely uses the ships for sovereignty patrols and to transport supplies and rotating navy and marine personnel to nine Philippines-occupied island, islets and reefs in the strategic South China Sea.

That has put the Philippine ships on a collision course with China's massive coast guard and navy fleets in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety. Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of or the entire sea passage, a key global trade route.

The Philippines has strongly protested the Chinese coast guard’s use of blinding laser light and water cannon in separate incidents this year and its blockade that led to two minor collisions last month near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

In August, as the Magbanua tried to approach the shoal, which has been surrounded for years by China's vessels, its crew saw a Chinese coast guard ship maneuver into blocking position with its 70 mm armament uncovered, according to the Philippine coast guard.

In their talks on Friday in Manila, Kishida and Marcos agreed to start negotiations for a key defense pact called the Reciprocal Access Agreement that would allow their troops to enter each other’s territory for joint military exercises.

The Japanese premier also announced that coastal surveillance radars would be provided to the Philippine navy under a new security grant program that aims to help strengthen the militaries of friendly countries..

Japan has had a longstanding territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea.

In the first-ever speech by a Japanese premier before a joint session of the Philippine Congress on Saturday, Kishida pledged to continue helping bolster the capability of the Philippine military and maritime agencies.