Philippines says pact with Japan takes defence ties to unprecedented high

By Mikhail Flores and Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines hailed an "unprecedented" high in defence ties with Japan after the signing on Monday of a landmark military pact allowing deployment of forces on each other's soil in the face of China's increasingly assertive stance in the region.

The Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), the first of its kind Japan has signed in Asia, will ease the entry of equipment and troops for combat training and disaster response, smoothing military co-operation between Manila and Tokyo.

"The RAA brings our defence partnership to an unprecedented height," Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo told a joint briefing after a "2-plus-2" meeting of both nations' foreign and defence ministers.

The deal coincides with a spurt in maritime run-ins between Manila and Beijing over the former's missions to resupply troops stationed on a beached vessel on the contested Second Thomas Shoal, which led to injury of a Philippine sailor last month.

"The ministers expressed serious concern over the dangerous and escalatory actions by China at Second Thomas Shoal," they said in a joint statement after the meeting.

China's actions obstructed freedom of navigation and disrupted supply lines, leading to an increase in tension, they added.

The pact will take effect after being ratified by the parliaments of both countries.

China claims much of the South China Sea, a conduit for the bulk of northeast Asia's trade with the rest of the world in which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Japan, which announced last year its biggest military build-up since World War Two in a step away from post-war pacifism, does not have any claims to the busy waterway.

But it has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea, where the neighbours have repeatedly faced off.

Both the Philippines and Japan, two of the United States' closest Asian allies, have taken a strong line against what they see as an increasingly assertive China in the South China Sea, voicing concern over tension across the Taiwan Strait.

At the same press briefing, Japan's foreign minister, Yoko Kamikawa, reiterated the importance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, warning that Tokyo opposed "unilateral attempts to change status quo by force and coercion".

In Beijing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the Asia-Pacific region did not need military blocs or provocations between different camps or small circles that encourage a new Cold War.

"During World War Two, Japan was responsible for invasion and colonial rule of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines," Lin Jian said in reply to a reporter's question at a regular briefing.

"Japan should seriously reflect on its history of aggression and be cautious in words and deeds in the field of military security."

The Philippines has a Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States and Australia. Tokyo, which hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces abroad, has similar RAA deals with Australia and Britain, and is negotiating another with France.

(Reporting by Mikhail Flores and Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Liz Lee in Beijing; Editing by David Holmes and Clarence Fernandez)