JAPAN’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stands next to Japan’s national flag at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, March 3, 2022. — REUTERS

JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. will tackle tensions in the South China Sea at their meeting in Manila this week, Malacañang said on Thursday.

The two leaders will exchange views on issues facing the region and the international community, including China’s increased assertiveness at sea, it said.

They will also talk about trade and investment deals, including Japan’s official development assistance, during their meeting, which will be the highlight of Mr. Kishida’s two-day Philippine visit until Nov. 4, the palace said.

“Both leaders are expected to discuss the two countries’ multifaceted and dynamic cooperation on political and security cooperation and economic and people-to-people relations,” the Foreign Affairs department said in the statement.

The two leaders met during Mr. Marcos’s visit to Japan in February. They also met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Jakarta in September, along with US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Mr. Kishida’s trip to the Philippines and Malaysia from Nov. 3 to 5 is an assurance that Tokyo would keep a strong presence in the region as the US deals with the Israel-Hamas conflict and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lucio B. Pitlo, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“Japan is becoming a net security provider, assisting in the maritime capacity building of Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines,” he said. “It is stepping up participation in regular military exercises, donating patrol aircraft and selling radars to Manila.”

Japan remains the “most favorable alternative partner” of Southeast Asian countries “at a time when there are great uncertainties in the future of international politics,” and amid the US-China power competition, Don Mclain Gill, an international studies lecturer at De La Salle University, said via Messenger chat.

Japan wants to play a bigger role as a security and development provider in the region amid the changing geopolitical landscape, he added.

On Wednesday, Japan said Tokyo and Manila were finalizing when to sign a deal on Japanese official security assistance program for like-minded countries.

The program allows Tokyo to “provide equipment and supplies as well as assistance for the development of infrastructure to like-minded countries in view of strengthening their security capacities and improving their deterrence capabilities,” according to Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. “This is part of efforts to reinforce the comprehensive defense architecture.”

Tokyo-based Kyodo News earlier said the two countries were expected to begin formal talks in November for a visiting forces agreement. During his visit to Japan in February, Mr. Marcos said he’s open to such deal if it would help defend Filipino fishermen in Philippine waters. “I don’t see why we should not adopt it.”

The Philippines got the highest official development assistance (ODA) from Japan among Southeast Asian countries at ¥260 billion from April 2021 to March 2022, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) said in January.

Japanese ODA to the Philippines accounted for 36.4% or $11 billion (P622 billion) of the Philippines’ total ODA in 2020.

The Philippine government recently dropped funding deals with China for three major railway projects worth P2.8 trillion amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny T. Pimentel said Japan is the “logical fallback funding source” for the construction of the Mindanao Railway project after the Philippine government backed out of loan negotiations with China.

“Our sense is, Japan is our best recourse, considering that JICA is already helping our Department of Transportation in modeling our 30-year railway masterplan for Metro Manila, Central Luzon and the Calabarzon region,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Pimentel, who is a member of the House of Representatives committee on flagship programs, said Japan charged low interest for its financing of the Metro Manila Subway and other rail projects in Luzon. “We might as well ask them to double down and grant us the concessional loan for the Mindanao Railway Project.”

Mr. Kishida will visit Manila a few days after China accused a Philippine military ship of trespassing into waters near Scarborough Shoal, which is within Manila’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines has accused China of “overhyping” Manila’s patrol missions in the area. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza