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MANILA – The Philippines and Japan are set to sign a key defense pact on Monday that will allow troops to be deployed on each other’s territory.

Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara and Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa will hold high-level talks in Manila with their Filipino counterparts Gilbert Teodoro and Enrique Manalo.

The Philippines and Japan — longtime allies of the United States — are deepening defense ties in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos will witness the signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which the countries began negotiating in November, the Philippine Presidential Communications Office said.

The agreement will provide a legal framework for Japan and the Philippines to send each other’s defense personnel to their territory for training and other operations.

Negotiations were “nearly concluded”, Tokyo’s ambassador to Manila Kazuya Endo said in a speech on Thursday, marking “significant developments” in the delivery of Japanese defense equipment to the Philippines.

The talks follow escalating confrontations at sea between Chinese and Philippine ships as Beijing steps up efforts to assert its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea.

The most serious of the many incidents occurred on June 17, when Chinese coast guard personnel armed with knives, clubs and axes surrounded and boarded three Philippine naval ships during a supply mission at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.

A Filipino sailor lost a thumb in the collision.

Tokyo and Beijing are also at loggerheads over disputed islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan.

The RAA was important because it would allow the Philippines to “enhance our interoperability with like-minded partners,” said Manila-based geopolitical analyst Don McLain Gill.

“It would also complement what we’re trying to do in terms of strengthening our security partnerships across the US hub and spoke network.”

Washington is strengthening its network of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s growing military power and influence in what Chinese officials say is a US effort to create a “NATO” in the region.

Leaders from Japan, the Philippines and the United States held their first trilateral summit to strengthen defense ties in Washington in April.

It came on the heels of quadrilateral military exercises involving Australia in the South China Sea that hit out at Beijing.

The Philippines has been a key focus of US efforts to build an arc of alliances due to its location in the South China Sea and its proximity to Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

Supporting the Philippines would be crucial for the United States in any conflict.

Japan, wary of possible future changes in US policy in the region, has also sought to “play a bigger role” as an independent and stabilizing force, analyst Gill said.

Tokyo has signed similar reciprocal access agreements with Britain and Australia in recent years.

The Philippines has equivalent pacts with the United States and Australia and plans to enforce them with France.

Japan, which invaded and occupied the Philippines during World War II, is the leading provider of overseas development aid to the country as well as a supplier of security equipment.

“The Japanese would like to impress upon the Americans that Japan is the linchpin of the American security presence, the military presence here in the region and, of course, the most reliable ally of the United States,” said Renato Cruz De Castro, a professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila.

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