Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s recently concluded two-day visit to the Philippines came at a crucial juncture in the region’s fast-changing geopolitics. Tokyo is grappling not only with deep uncertainties concerning US foreign policy and Washington’s commitment to its security under the incoming Donald Trump administration, but also with respect to Philippine strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, who has recently shaken the region’s strategic landscape.
Dubbed globally as the “Trump of the East”, Duterte has in just six months in office radically recalibrated Philippine foreign policy away from the US toward China and Russia. He has effectively tossed aside the Philippines’ landmark arbitration win over China in The Hague last July, a ruling based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that effectively delegitimized Beijing’s sprawling sovereignty claims over the South China Sea. China brushed the non-binding ruling aside at the time.
Duterte has refused to raise the arbitration issue in regional fora, including at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while advocating joint development and energy exploration schemes in disputed waters as well as stronger trade and investment ties to China. It has thus become almost impossible for the US and likeminded regional allies such as Japan to invoke the arbitration ruling as a legal pretext for more robust military countermeasures to China in the contested maritime area, including proposed multilateral ‘freedom of navigation’ operations.
By his second month in office, Duterte was already on a collision course with the Obama administration, which began to more explicitly criticize his scorched-earth campaign against illegal drugs. The tough-talking Philippine leader lashed out at American leaders, including the outgoing President Barack Obama, and threatened to end his country’s century-old military alliance with Washington. In that direction, Duterte has moved toward terminating major joint military exercises with the US, namely the joint US-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat).
At the same time, Manila has openly contemplated military agreements with China and Russia, both of which have offered advanced military equipment and proposed joint drills and military exercises. In October, Duterte snubbed Japan in favor of China as his first state visit destination. During the high-profile trip, he announced — to the astonishment of many, including his own senior officials — his ‘separation’ from Washington and declared his intention to join China’s and Russia’s “ideological flow.” In response, Beijing offered the Philippines US$24 billion worth of loans and investment deals.
The following week, Japan hosted Duterte with a clear sense of urgency. The Abe administration lavished its guest with praise, arranged a historic meeting with the Japanese Emperor Akihito and offered US$19 billion in development assistance and investment deals. Tokyo also strongly encouraged the Philippine president to hedge his bets in the South China Sea, maintain strong ties with Washington and reconsider its rapprochement with Beijing, according to reports at the time.
Abe’s reciprocal visit to Manila made him the first head of government to visit the Southeast Asian country under Duterte, who has come under increasing international pressure due to his human rights record in relation to his war on drugs. The Japanese leader appeared as a man on a mission and eager to engage Duterte, who has frequently mixed personal emotions with high-stakes diplomacy to volatile effect.
In a clear departure from other global leaders, particularly those in the West, Abe has also openly supported Duterte’s war on drugs
Accompanied by major Japanese businessmen, Abe in particular sought to substantiate the earlier multi-billion economic pledges to Manila. Japan is already the Philippines’ biggest export market, largest source of overseas development assistance and leading foreign investor. It has also previously enjoyed warm ties with Duterte, who, in his capacity as the former mayor of Davao city, welcomed large-scale Japanese investments to his underdeveloped region.
In more recent years, Japan has also become a major source of maritime security assistance to the Philippines, supplying advanced patrol vessels and surveillance aircraft. Displaying a nimble and personalized diplomacy, Abe visited not only Manila but also Davao, where he had an intimate breakfast in Duterte’s now famous “humble abode”. In a clear departure from other global leaders, particularly those in the West, Abe has also openly supported Duterte’s war on drugs, while discussing a multi-billion dollar investment plan for Mindanao, the president’s war-ravaged home island.
Abe also confirmed a whopping US$8.7 billion development aid package, among Japan’s biggest ever. The Japanese leader, however, also reportedly had pointed discussions with Duterte over the need to uphold the rule of law — coded language for the UN arbitration verdict — while prodding his counterpart to patch up differences with America under the incoming Trump administration.
It is not clear yet that Abe’s charm offensive will radically, or even subtly, reshape Duterte’s foreign and strategic policies, including his antagonism toward the US. Indeed, much will depend on Trump’s and China’s next moves after recent heated comments exchanged over social and state media, including about the South China Sea. But clearly the Philippines is now in the middle of a bidding war for influence among regional powers who are eager to win the strongman’s favor and good will.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and policy adviser, and a long-time Asia Times contributor. His latest book is Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific.