Commentary: Japan’s role in Duterte’s quest for an independent foreign policy

Prof. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Program Convenor for Foreign Policy and Regional Security at the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi)

Alliances are formal or informal relationships of security cooperation between two or more sovereign states.They are formed when states pool their resources, abilities and efforts in the face of a common threat. Alliances are protean entities that take several shapes. There are wartime or peacetime; offensive or defensive; political, or economic or cultural; permanent or temporary; and bilateral or multilateral alliances.

Alliances may be tight and highly institutionalized and legalistic security structures like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), wherein member states are legally obliged to come to each other’s assistance in case of a conflict. They may also be simple security partnerships where the partners assist each other in strengthening mutual capabilities without any commitment to go to each other’s assistance in times of war. The Japan and Philippine security relationship assumes this latter form.

Developing security relationship

Japan and the Philippines have always maintained vibrant economic relations that have generated close diplomatic ties and, in the second decade of this century, a security partnership. Japan is one of the Philippines’ most important trade partners and the country’s biggest source of foreign direct investments. The two countries are also US allies that have also been discussing bilateral security concerns in a number of international forums such as the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia, the Philippine-Japan Sub-Ministerial Meeting, the ASEAN-Japan Forum, the ASEAN-Japan Summit and ASEAN plus Three. The two countries are also proactively engaging each other through several regional organizations such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asian Summit, and recently, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

The two countries have also been cooperating in strengthening their enforcement capacity in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile technology. Prior to 2012, Tokyo and Manila did not find the need to sign or even consider a formal agreement on defense cooperation. Both countries were wary that Beijing might misconstrue any security cooperation as an anti-Chinese alliance. This thinking, however, changed when the two countries were confronted by China’s heavy-handed behavior in the South and East China Seas.

“Prior to 2012, Tokyo and Manila did not find the need to sign or even consider a formal agreement on defense cooperation. Both countries were wary that Beijing might misconstrue any security cooperation as an anti-Chinese alliance.”

China’s bullying behavior pushed both countries to explore a strategic partnership. In April 2012, at the start of the two-month Scarborough Shoal standoff, then Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Toshio Urabe stressed the “close-knit triangular relationship among Japan, the Philippines, and their closest (mutual) ally — the US.” Consequently, Tokyo became more forthright in extending its security assistance to the Philippines.

“China’s bullying behavior pushed both countries to explore a strategic partnership. In April 2012, at the start of the two-month Scarborough Shoal standoff, then Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Toshio Urabe stressed the ‘close-knit triangular relationship among Japan, the Philippines, and their closest (mutual) ally — the US.’”

In July 2012, then Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and his Filipino counterpart, former Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, inked a bilateral agreement on maritime security. The agreement calls for high-level dialogues between defense officials and reciprocal visits by the chief-of-staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Philippine Navy flag commander. This security partnership between the two US allies, however, is still in an evolving stage. It consists primarily of political and security consultations between Filipino and Japanese political leaders, ranking defense officials, and high-level military officers and Japan’s provision of patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and non-lethal military equipment to the Philippine Navy.

Next 6 years: A comprehensive engagement

The election of Rodrigo Roa Duterte as the16th president of the Philippines led to a dramatic change in Philippine relations vis-à-vis China, Japan, and the United States.President Duterte currently pursues a relatively balanced and calibrated policy characterized by gravitating closer to China while crafting some diplomatic distance from the Philippines’ only strategic security ally, the United States. As a result, President Duterte’s foreign policy gambit of gravitating closer to Beijing while alienating Washington has unsettled both the United States and Japan.

Consequently, the Japanese government decided to persevere with its nuanced or unique approach in dealing with the Philippines. A senior Japanese official admitted that while Tokyo and Washington share the same goal in Manila, Japan takes a different approach in its relations with the Philippines, as there are some things that Manila can only accept when Japan provides them. Sensing that China would take advantage of the tension between the US and the Philippines, Japan adopted a policy of comprehensive engagement with the Philippines.

“Consequently, the Japanese government decided to persevere with its nuanced or unique approach in dealing with the Philippines… Sensing that China would take advantage of the tension between the US and the Philippines, Japan adopted a policy of comprehensive engagement with the Philippines.”

During his three-day official visit to Japan in October 2016, President Duterte and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed greater politico-social and defense cooperation, particularly in maritime domain awareness and maritime security. During his meeting with Prime Minister Abe, President Duterte admitted that the Philippines and Japan were in the same situation as he pointed out that Japan has a territorial row with China.Then he “declared that when the time is right, the Philippines will take Japan’s side,” despite his hostile comments against the two countries’ common ally, the US. Interestingly, President Duterte also suggested that the Philippine could conduct naval exercises with Japan, but he repeated that there would be no more joint exercises with the United States.

Despite President Duterte’s efforts to engage China for business purposes and for managing the tension in the South China Sea, he also sees the need to secure more ships from Japan to patrol the Philippines’s maritime territory. President Duterte witnessed the signing of the Memorandum of Implement and Letter of Arrangement for the transfer of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) training aircraft TC-90s maritime reconnaissance planes for the Philippine Navy. Japan will also provide the training for Philippine Navy aviators and will develop the infrastructures for these reconnaissance aircraft that will be patrolling the South China Sea. The most significant accomplishment of Duterte’s working visit to Japan was the two countries’ signing of the 26th October 2016 Japan-Philippine Joint Statement. The statement commits both countries to the maintenance of the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that holds the sea lanes vital for global economic activity and viability. The two leaders also reaffirmed that the stronger (security) ties between Japan and the Philippines to promote the peace, stability and maritime security of the region.

“The most significant accomplishment of Duterte’s working visit to Japan was the two countries’ signing of the 26th October 2016 Japan-Philippine Joint Statement. The statement commits both countries to the maintenance of the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that holds the sea lanes vital for global economic activity and viability.”

Win-win relationship

This security partnership serves these two countries’ interests in the face of China’s emergence as a regional power in East Asia. On the one hand, Japan’s immediate goal is to assist the Philippines in improving its maritime surveillance capabilities in the light of increasing Chinese maritime activities in the South China Sea. However, aware that strained Philippine-US relations benefits China, Japan is strengthening its relations with the Duterte administration by fostering periodic consultations between the two countries, and strengthening the Philippine Navy’s maritime domain awareness capabilities.

On the other hand, a strengthened security partnership with Japan enables the Philippines to effectively play its classic diplomatic gambit of equi-balancing. This involves the art of pitting one great power against the other and thus, preventing the Philippines from affecting a total pivot to China or becoming dependent on any of these major powers.

“On the other hand, a strengthened security partnership with Japan enables the Philippines to effectively play its classic diplomatic gambit of equi-balancing. This involves the art of pitting one great power against the other and thus, preventing the Philippines from affecting a total pivot to China or becoming dependent on any of these major powers.”

President Duterte has been very critical about the Philippine-US alliance but he has never criticized or even mentioned the Philippine-Japan security partnership. Currently, Japan is the only developed country with a healthy and cordial relationship with the Philippines. This is only natural because Japan is one of the Philippines’ most important trade partners and the country’s biggest source of foreign direct investments. Japan is also the Philippines’ largest Official Development Assistance donor. This makes Japan an important countervailing force to an expected increase in Chinese influence in the light of President Duterte’s efforts to forge a “new economic alliance” with Beijing.

“Currently, Japan is the only developed country with a healthy and cordial relationship with the Philippines…  This makes Japan an important countervailing force to an expected increase in Chinese influence in the light of President Duterte’s efforts to forge a ‘new economic alliance’ with Beijing.”

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