Japan has found a creative way to deploy its military forces to the country as tensions rise over China’s aggressive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region — through a closer cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).

Helping the Philippines deal with natural and man-made disasters was the more acceptable way to send boots on the ground for the two countries’ military training and exercises.

Japan had sent its military to assist the country during the onslaught of Typhoon “Haiyan” in central Philippines in 2013. It has also participated in the “Sagip” humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises.

However, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations are the most abused term when it comes to non-traditional military cooperation around the world.

Many people have been wary of conventional military exercises, fearing the drills could raise tensions. North Korea, for instance, criticized the United States and South Korea for holding live drills near its borders.

China also showed displeasure over US-led exercises in the Philippines and Japan.

When armies do HADR exercises, they are actually rehearsing military interoperability to respond to all types of emergencies, testing as well as the logistics run, communications, and mobility.

There is a thin line separating the HADR exercises from conventional warfare exercises. The scenarios might be different but the actors, the doctrines, and strategies could be the same.

HADR activities do not raise alarm bells in other countries compared with purely conventional military exercises but these HADR exercises are actually dress rehearsals for any contingency. The term HADR softens the lethal nature of the activity.

For instance, past combined and joint “Balikatan” exercises used the HADR concept when the purpose of the conventional drills was to test the readiness of both armed forces in repelling an external aggression in the country.

The “Balikatan” exercises are held under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which committed the United States to help in case of an armed attack on any public vessel, military aircraft, and ships anywhere in the South China Sea.

Japan’s interests in holding large-scale bilateral military exercises with the Philippines is in line with its efforts to play a larger security role in the region.

It does not only want to share the burden of strengthening defense in the region but also wants to take a central role in partnership with the United States and other like-minded nations, like the Philippines.

In recent years, Japan has been taking part in conventional military drills in the Philippines, like the combined and joint “Balikatan” exercises with the United States and the Marines-led “Kamandag” and the naval exercises “Sama-Sama.”

Japan has already unsheathed its katana to play a larger security role in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s growing influence and assert its own claim on the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

The Chinese coast guard has been driving away Japanese fishermen around the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu islands, raising concerns in Tokyo.

Japan is not holding its punches, converting its two helicopter carriers into offensive aircraft carriers by deploying several conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35 fighters and developing long-range missiles that could strike deep into hostile countries, like China.

It has been rearming to address the security challenges in the region after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled last December a defense spending plan of $320 billion for the next five years.

In the past, Japan was limited to spending only 1 percent of its GDP on defense after its humiliating defeat in the Second World War.

Japan’s military was also restricted to a purely defensive posture, calling its ground, maritime, and air forces as self-defense forces.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces have no nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines and its Air Defense Forces have no strategic bombers to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles.

But Japan has military forces more lethal and potent than the entire armed forces in Southeast Asia combined. It’s the most advanced military force in the region behind the United States and China.

It has also started exporting its missile technology and has been helping the Philippines by installing a three-dimensional air defense radar to detect intruding aircraft as far as 400 nautical miles away.

There had been many indications of Japanese interest to hold conventional drills in the country. It sent several F-15 fighters in December and invited the army to a trilateral event with the United States.

However, Japan needs a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) similar to what the Philippines had signed with the United States and Australia, before it could send troops and equipment for routine training and exercises.

On Feb. 9, during a bilateral meeting in Tokyo, both Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida acknowledged the need for a framework agreement to further security cooperation.

They avoided mentioning the term VFA but it is a proper legal framework for both allies to stage conventional military training and exercises. In fact, there had been low-level talks about a VFA since the time of President Benigno Aquino III.

While both the defense and foreign affairs departments are discussing a possible VFA, the exercises and training activities cannot wait.

Japan no longer wants to piggyback on Philippines-US bilateral drills and cannot wait to have its own and separate military exercises with the Philippines. Thus, they agreed to have an HADR activity.

The Philippines is expecting the Japanese military to be back on its soil soon. This time, the Japanese military will not be an invading force, but an ally to train and exercise with the local armed forces for the defense of the country’s sovereignty.