In a move towards Japan and hedge against China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made his third visit to Tokyo this week, where he met with Japanese leaders and reaffirmed rising business and security ties.
The Filipino leader was honored as the designated keynote speaker at the Nikkei’s 25th International Conference on the Future of Asia (May 30-31), which annually brings together leading political, business and academic figures from around the region.
Duterte’s visit produced 26 new bilateral agreements, including trade and investment deals between business companies worth nearly US$6 billion.
Those commercial deals come against the backdrop of deepening strategic talks, including procurements of Japanese-made arms and equipment that would aim specifically to bolster the Philippines’ position vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea.
The pledged business investments, including from Japan’s Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd, Mitsubishi cars and giant convenience store chain Lawson Inc, are expected to create as many 82,737 jobs across the Philippines.
The Filipino leader also reportedly discussed with his counterparts shared strategic concerns, including in the South China Sea, where China boats and ships have recently swarmed the Manila-claimed Thitu island to prevent its refurbishment.
The timing and scale of Duterte’s 200-strong contingent, including 16 Cabinet members, underscored the importance his government places on its Japan relations. Apart from China, which Duterte has visited four times in the last three years, Japan is Duterte’s most regular foreign destination.
As part of a diplomatic balancing act, the Filipino president tends to symbolically visit Japan soon after his China trips. Duterte did just that in 2016, when he traveled to Japan only days after his high-profile state visit to Beijing in October.
This year, Duterte’s Japan visit came just weeks after his attendance at China’s Second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April.
While courting Chinese investments, of which Beijing has promised as much as $26 billion in aid and investments in recent years, the Duterte administration has assiduously welcomed investments and strategic partnership deals from Japan as well.
Philippine Ambassador to Japan Jose Laurel even claimed that Japan treats the Philippines as its “most important partner country,” though Japan’s relations with the United States are on an altogether different strategic and economic level.
Still, for the past five decades, Japan has been a leading investor in the Philippines, including in public infrastructure. Tokyo is also Duterte’s biggest partner in his “build, build, build” infrastructure bonanza, which includes a Japanese-led subway project in Manila, the first of its kind in the Philippines, and the North-South Commuter Railway in the country’s industrialized north.
Much of Metro-Manila’s existing modern infrastructure, including superhighways and metro systems, are based on partnerships with the Japanese government and private companies.
The Asian powerhouse has also shown interest in helping to develop basic infrastructure in Duterte’s impoverished southern home island of Mindanao, where China has also promised major investments, including in a modern railway that has so far failed to break ground.
While Duterte has often hotly upbraided traditional allies, including the US and EU, for criticizing his controversial policies including a lethal drug war, he has maintained a cool head and cordial relations with Japan.
History has something to do with it. During his decades-long stint as mayor of Davao City, Mindanao’s economic hub, Duterte cultivated strong ties with the Japanese consulate and investors, which together played a key role in turning his hometown into a relative economic dynamo in the region.
Duterte was also reportedly deeply pleased when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to visit the Philippines under his term in January 2017. Abe has also played a key behind-the-scenes role in mediating tensions between Manila and Washington, paving the way for relatively warm personal relations between Trump and Duterte.
Bilateral relations, meanwhile, are increasingly focusing on strategic affairs. Last month, the Philippines joined Japan, India and the US in the first ever “quadrilateral” joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. The exercise, which served as a de facto multilateral Freedom of Navigation Operation, saw the Philippines’ BRP Andres Bonifacio warship join Japan’s JS Izumo and JS Murasame along with US and Indian battleships.
Looking to counterbalance China’s rise, Abe has pursued stronger defense ties with regional partners, especially the Philippines. As China has become increasingly assertive around Philippine-claimed features in the South China Sea, Manila is looking to Tokyo, as well as Washington, for countervailing support.
Ahead of Duterte’s Tokyo visit, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre said that the South China Sea disputes would be “central” to bilateral discussions.
“The Philippines, for its part, has always affirmed its commitment to uphold the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, freedom of commerce and other local activities,” the Filipino diplomat said, echoing America’s position on the contested maritime region.
Japan may soon deliver defense-related equipment to help the Philippines maintain that line.
Philippine envoy Laurel said Japan has been “completely cooperating with us. In particular, number one, providing us the equipment, particularly ships and airplanes, jet planes and helicopters,” as well as “extended agreements on training and cooperation of our officers and men in the security aspect.”
In recent years, Japan has shown greater interest in participating in joint exercises with the Philippines, including its first-ever post-war deployment of armored vehicles to the US-Philippine annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises last year.
Japan has also stepped up its maritime security assistance to the Philippines, including the recent transfer of TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft to the Philippine Navy as well as multi-role vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard.
Japanese warships and helicopter carriers have also regularly visit Philippine ports, with no less than Duterte himself serving as a guest of honor during Japan’s goodwill port calls over the past two years.
As such, Japan-Philippine defense relations have arguably never been stronger in the post-World War II era, a trend that is expected to continue and expand with their shared concerns about China’s rising maritime assertiveness in nearby waters.
In a May 28 interview with this writer, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana underscored the strategic point. He said that Japan is “trying to sell us their latest radar systems. We are looking at five systems to be procured from them.”
“The Japanese are actually producing aircraft, they are still looking at the constitution if they can transfer those heavy equipment to us,” the Philippine defense chief said.