In an interview with the “Sa Totoo Lang” program on Cignal TV’s OnePh channel, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said the Philippines aims to sign a VFA-like military-to-military agreement with Japan by the first quarter of 2024.

Once the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) is signed, Filipinos will see the return of Japanese troops to its soil more than 80 years after the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the country during World War II.

This time, the Japanese soldiers will be deployed not as aggressors but as allies to help the Philippines deal with natural disasters. They will train and hold exercises for the defense of Philippine sovereignty.

Manila and Tokyo have been informally discussing a deal similar to a status of forces agreement (SOFA) since the time of the late President Benigno Aquino III.

Formal negotiations actually started in late November when a delegation from the Philippines flew to Tokyo to exchange drafts.

The two countries can easily pattern an RAA from existing regional security templates, like the Visiting Forces Agreement between Australia and the Philippines.

Manila and Tokyo can also lift the provisions from Japan’s recent RAAs with Australia and the United Kingdom.

Japan has been rushing RAAs because it wants to prevent any regional power from emerging in the Indo-Pacific that can unilaterally change the status quo in the region.

Japan also has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea. It is also worried over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s potential aggression on self-ruled Taiwan.

Japan’s RAAs can also enhance deterrence and maintain a peaceful and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s creeping global influence and increasing hostility in the South China Sea have also forced the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific to draw up a new regional networked security architecture.

Washington has been building a web of regional trilateral cooperations, linking them into a formidable single security network.

Japan, the Philippines, and the United States are examples of the emerging trilateral security cooperation.

The United States had also established trilateral security cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

These two alliances could link with Australia’s, the Philippines’, and the United States’ security arrangements.

Australia and the United States are the only countries with which the Philippines has a status of forces agreement, known as a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

These trilateral security arrangements are expanding into a web of alliances that Japan, Australia, India, the United States, and European nations are slowly building.

Outside the United States, Japan is also interested in pushing for trilateral cooperation with India and Vietnam.

Japan is strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Australia, India, and the United States.

It is also supporting Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (AUKUS) arrangement, and the Quad Plus, including Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam, and potentially the Philippines.

The alphabet-soup regional security cooperation has been growing in the last few years as China increases its presence and activities not only in the East and South China Sea but in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf area, setting up bases in Pakistan and Djibouti. It may have established a naval base in Cambodia and a military presence in tiny South Pacific islands.

The Chinese expansion in the South Pacific and Latin American states has alarmed Western states — Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have also been concerned that these European powers have sent warships to join freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed waters in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Philippines could benefit from the growing web of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region and changed its West Philippine Sea policy and strategy to assert its sovereign rights within its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

For six years under former president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines adopted an appeasement policy, accommodating China in the hope of increased trade and investment.

In his first visit to Beijing in 2016, Duterte was promised some $24 billion in infrastructure projects, including water, power, and trains.

Six years later, only two small bridges in Metro Manila and a water project in the north were delivered.

The ambitious train projects in Bicol and Mindanao did not push through as well as a bridge linking Panay and Negros islands in the central Philippines.

A joint oil and gas exploration project in the West Philippine Sea did not materialize, delaying the country’s search for a new gas field to replace Malampaya.

Duterte’s gambit miserably failed.

Less than a year after succeeding Duterte, Ferdinand Marcos reversed the pro-China policy, vowing not to give an inch of the country’s sovereignty to a foreign power.

Marcos slid back to the United States, angering China, which intensified its harassment of Philippine civilian and coast guard vessels in the disputed waters.

Marcos’ hardened position in the West Philippine Sea has won public approval and support. He has also won international praise for standing up to China.

Under Marcos, the military and coast guard have been allowing the media to film China’s water cannon, laser-pointing, and ramming incidents in Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoal.

Teodoro said the Philippines was not provoking China. It was only doing a routine rotation and resupply mission to areas within its EEZ.

China has no right to interfere and stop the Philippines from exercising its sovereign rights within the EEZ.

The Philippines was also not acting on behalf of the United States because it was protecting its rights.

Teodoro articulated the “paradigm shift” the president wanted to push in the maritime dispute with China.

Teodoro said the Philippines would continue doing what it knows is best for its national interests in the West Philippine Sea.

“No country in the world, none, to this time has condemned the Philippines in what it’s doing,” he said.

In contrast, the world has condemned China for its presence and illegal activities in the disputed waters.

The Philippines’s strategy to expose China’s coercive activities and enhance security cooperation with allies appeared to be the right strategy to counter China’s “gray zone” tactics in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines has found the right approach to counter China’s bullying — calibrated transparency and the emerging networked security architecture.