Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) reaches for a hand shake with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) after a meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul June 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ahn Young-joon/Pool

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte just tied up a crucial three-day visit to South Korea, a tour some interpreted as a bid to hedge his government’s rising reliance on China amid spiking tensions in the South China Sea.

On June 4, the Filipino leader met his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, major South Korean capital groups, as well as members of the large Filipino community in the country. Duterte walked away with nearly US$4.9 billion in avowed deals with South Korean firms and new defense and security assurances.

South Korea is the Philippines fifth largest trading partner, with bilateral trade hitting US$14.3 billion in 2017. Last year as many as 1.5 million South Koreans visited the Philippines, which is home to the largest Korean community in Southeast Asia.

South Korea has also become a key defense partner, augmenting the Philippines’ naval and air force capabilities through the sale of several squadrons of FA-50 fighter jets and Pohang-class corvettes, both of which can be deployed for defense purposes in the South China Sea.

“President Moon and I both reaffirmed the need to work closer together to address traditional and emerging threats, again (including) terrorism, transnational crimes and piracy at sea,” Duterte said. “To do this, we will count on South Korea as a steady partner in modernizing our key assets in defense, security and law enforcement.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks besides South Korean President Moon Jae-in after a meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul June 4, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Ahn Young-joon

During their meeting at the Blue House in Seoul, Duterte and Moon celebrated a “new maturity” in bilateral relations, with Duterte describing Korea as “a true friend of the Philippines” and “Moon an even closer ally.”

Duterte described the “importance of friends like South Korea” to his “independent” foreign policy, which to date has been perceived as reducing Manila’s reliance on traditional Western allies like America.

But with recent jousting with China over South China Sea disputes, including a recent announcement that if any power crossed three red lines in the contested area it would be cause for war, Duterte had twin reasons to hedge.

Moon, for his part, celebrated the “remarkable progress for the past 70 years, in every field including politics, economy, culture and people-to-people exchanges,” between the two countries.

Duterte’s visit came at a touchy diplomatic juncture. Philippine-South Korean relations have been on testy grounds under Duterte’s watch, due largely to deteriorating law and order conditions as well as last year’s gruesome murder of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo, allegedly at the hands of Filipino law enforcers.

The incident provoked a massive uproar in South Korea and became a major topic in the country’s 2017 presidential election campaign. Moon, then a presidential candidate, lashed out at the Duterte administration for not properly investigating the murder, describing its perceived inaction as “diplomatic disrespect.”

Activists condemn the Philippine government’s ‘war on drugs’ and hold placards showing the picture of the late South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo, who was murdered allegedly by suspected policemen in Manila on January 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

“An innocent Korean was killed in the Philippines again. It’s quite a shock that this time incumbent police officers were involved and the murder was committed within the police headquarters,” Moon wrote on his social media account at the time.

“What’s more shocking is that President Duterte did not hold the police chief, who faces growing calls to resign from the Philippine people, responsible but rather participated in his birthday party,” Moon Jae-in added.

Bilateral investment has apparently fallen as a result. During Duterte’s first year in office, there was a more than 92.6% slump in South Korean investments in the Philippines, falling from a high of 11.8 billion pesos (US$224.8 million) in 2016 to a historic low of 873.1 million pesos (US$16.6 million) in 2017.

The massive drop off was partly due to more attractive prospects in regional neighbors such as Vietnam, analysts said.

But concerns over rule of law amid widespread reports of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s drug war was also a critical factor. Earlier this year the Korean Chamber of Commerce Philippines (KCCP) expressed its concerns in unusually blunt terms.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

“We strongly believe in the importance of the rule of law, due process and respect of human rights in all countries, including the Philippines. Security is the issue investors are most concerned with when they decide and choose a place or country,” KCCP’s president Lee Ho-Ik said.

“To be frank with you, to date, it shows that the Philippines is not a safe country. [The] government should tighten gun control. This is not the US, it’s the Philippines,” he said in the statement.

During his meeting with Korean businessmen at the Lotte Hotel in Seoul, Duterte acknowledged “a lot of misgivings about the law and order situation in the Philippines” among foreign investors, and how past incidents “did not augur well for people to even consider the Philippines as an investment area.”

He also admitted persistent problems of professionalism “including [among] my own national police.” Duterte also vowed that under new leaderships at the interior ministry and law enforcement agencies that the situation will improve.

“For those of you who come to the Philippines, [you’re] coming with our guarantee that you’ll be safe and sound. Give me time. Maybe toward the end of the year, I should have reorganized the [Philippine National Police],” Duterte added.

At the same time, the Moon administration has placed the Philippines at the center of its “New Southern Policy” aimed at strengthening ties with key states in Southeast Asia.

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

Seoul isn’t only interested in the favorable demographics and economic potential of major southern neighbors, but is also eager to augment its strategic capital through growing cooperation with and support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), especially amid high-stakes negotiations over the future of the Korean Peninsula.

As one key adviser to Moon told this writer last year, Asean is seen as a key partner in addressing regional security issues through what he called “middle power diplomacy” and cooperation.

In that direction, the Moon administration committed US$4.9 billion in investments as well as US$1 billion in overseas development assistance (ODA) to the Philippines, much of the latter focused on infrastructure development and rehabilitation of the war-torn town of Marawi, where China is also involved.

With that alignment of strategic interests, Philippine-South Korea bilateral relations are entering a new golden phase in spite of recent tensions and concerns between the two historical allies.

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