From The Global Times (Nov 1): With economic, military aid, Tokyo continues to counter Beijing in South China Sea (By Chang Sichun)
In late October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Japan for the first time since he took office and was warmly received by his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Duterte has uttered unfriendly statements against the US several times, and he even said his country was separating from the US. Regardless of the sour feelings of Japan, he chose China for his first state visit as president and agreed with China to handle the South China Sea issue by negotiations.
Therefore, Abe attached great importance to his meeting with Duterte. Through the meeting, Abe wanted to find out the real intention of Duterte in his China diplomacy. Meanwhile, he was trying to be a go-between to mediate the relationship between Washington and Manila. He wanted to persuade the Philippines to remain in the US-Japan camp and lobby the Philippines to become their pawn in the South China Sea dispute. The meeting highlights Japan's intentions to strengthen ties with the Philippines both politically and economically.
The mainstream academia and media in the US and Japan believe that if the Philippines continues to get close to China, it will pose a threat to the US strategy to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. As a chess piece of US strategies in the Asia-Pacific, Japan can only serve as a mediator between the US and the Philippines to prevent the latter from turning to China and Russia.
Meanwhile, Japan will strive to become a good partner of the Philippines and struggle with China for clout in the country. In a joint statement issued at the end of Duterte's visit, the two leaders reaffirmed that the two countries "fully commit to further strengthening the strategic partnership" based on common values. Japan will assist the Philippines with two large-scale patrol vessels and transfer five Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force training aircraft TC-90s. Abe expressed his intention to enhance security and defense cooperation, including training Philippine Navy pilots and enhancing the capacity of its infrastructure. Japan will also provide high-speed boats and other equipment to enhance Manila's anti-terrorism capabilities.
Japan's assistance to the Philippines in maritime security coincides with its diplomatic moves in Southeast Asia in recent years, the aim of which is to enhance military cooperation with these countries and at the same time counter China.
Economically, Japan is actively seeking to invest in infrastructure in the Philippines, displaying its determination to compete for influence with China. Since Duterte was sworn in, he has carried out a series of measures to attract foreign investment and boost the domestic economy, and has made some progress. During his visits to China and Japan, he spoke boldly of his goal of prioritizing trade and the economy.
Japan has placed high importance on seeking deals in infrastructure investment in the Philippines, one pillar of Japan's "High-quality Infrastructure Partnership." In August, Japan announced it would pour a massive amount of money into a new railway linking Manila and its nearby Bulacan Province to ease the hellish traffic in Manila.
In the latest meeting with Duterte, Abe promised to offer the largest extent of assistance in maritime security, anti-terrorism, peaceful construction on the island of Mindanao and economic development, all of which are key issues for Duterte. Japan has announced it will provide loans of official development assistance worth 5 billion yen ($47 million) to develop agricultural industries in Mindanao and its neighboring regions. Abe eyes not only the mineral resources there, but also a railway project in the southern region.
In a joint statement, Japan said it is "looking forward to the Philippine chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017." It is expected that Japan and the US will resort to both mild and stern measures toward Manila and try to contain China during ASEAN summits.
As some Japanese media said, Duterte's Japan-China equidistant diplomacy aims at accruing economic benefits. Therefore, Abe's intentions cannot be easily fulfilled. Despite this, Japan will continue to woo the Philippines and work on bilateral ties so as to counter China over the South China Sea issue.
[The author is an associate research fellow with the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.]