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MANILA (AFP) – Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to meet President Benigno Aquino on Saturday as the Philippines seeks to boost cooperation over growing territorial disputes with regional rival China.
The meeting comes as tensions have steadily risen between China and Japan, which accuses its growing neighbour of sending an increasing number of ships to exert its claim over unpopulated Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea.
The Philippines has also charged that China has used assertive means to exert claims in the conflict-riven South China Sea.
The first visit to Manila by a Japanese leader since December 2006 highlights the growing strategic partnership between the two Asian nations who were bitter enemies in the World War II era, officials said.
"Japan is one of our two strategic partners (besides the United States). Certainly, it (Abe trip) would be a significant visit from a strategic partner," Aquino's spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters ahead of Abe's arrival late Friday.
Foreign Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said the territorial disputes will be discussed by the leaders.
Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, who visited the Philippines last month, said the two countries would cooperate "in terms of the defence of remote islands... as well as protection of maritime interests".
Political scientist Rene de Castro of Manila's De La Salle University said the growing proximity was helping both nations overcome bitter World War II memories.
"As a liberal democracy, we recognise that Japan right now, is totally different from the Japan of World War II" when it occupied the Philippines, de Castro told AFP.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, in an interview with the Financial Times last year said Japan would be a "welcome" counterbalance to China's rise.
The hawkish Abe has pledged to loosen limits on the military in Japan's pacifist, post-war constitution and stand up to China over their East China Sea dispute.
Abe's government pledged in February to provide 10 patrol boats to the Philippines, which is rushing to upgrade its antiquated navy and coast guard.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea outcrop just 230 kilometres (140 miles) east of the main Philippine island of Luzon, last year after Manila backed down from a lengthy stand-off.
This year the Philippines has complained about the presence of Chinese navy vessels near Filipino-held Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly islands.