As Philippine-US relations sink to the political Plimsoll line, Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, is visiting Japan – America’s strongest ally in the region. For the Japanese this will be a test for finely balanced diplomacy and Washington will be watching very closely to see how it turns out. With Duterte having virtually served divorce papers on its former colonial boss, Tokyo now stands as the only place in the world that has the clout to broker a reconciliation. But it will not be easy.
First of all, Japan will not want to be seen as doing America’s bidding; a go-between is one thing; acting as a Washington lobbyist is quite another. Secondly, Japan-Philippines relations are extremely close and Tokyo will not want to risk a rift of any sort. Third, although Japan-US relations are practically unbreakable, they can certainly be strained and preventing that could be Tokyo’s biggest challenge. Fourth – and probably most important of all – Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, will not want to upset Duterte and risk the prospect of him dragging up events of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines between 1942 and 1945. Abe is stepping into a political mine field with all this, and he knows it.
The fact is that this situation is largely of Washington’s own making. Its vocal criticism of Duterte’s prosecution of the drugs war in the Philippines, aided and abetted by its tame media and tame NGOs, was ill thought through and has resulted in a diplomatic disaster. Washington has never criticised Mexico that way, and that’s its southern neighbour and the route along which the majority of narcotics flood daily into the US. And yet it felt it had the right – in its own mind as top world cop probably, the duty – to humiliate into submission the head of state of a sovereign nation in another hemisphere because of a “special relationship” which grew out of colonisation. How all that can be easily repaired is hard to see. Right now Washington has more chance of signing a friendship treaty with North Korea.
Thankfully, the Japanese didn’t follow that gaffe – nor did any other country in the entire Asia region. From Pakistan to Japan, Mongolia to Papua New Guinea and along the entire stretch of Southeast Asia, the Philippines handling of its own drug issue was an issue solely for the Philippines as far as they’re concerned. And given that, Abe and his diplomatic team will not want to be seen as suddenly getting involved in the internal affairs of the Philippines – even despite its proposed foreign-affairs position vis-à-vis China.
But, boiled down, that is precisely what this impasse is about. It has nothing to do with the drugs war – and it’s very likely that Washington never expected the two issues to be conflated; it’s about geopolitics and global positioning. More specifically, it’s about the balance of power in East Asia; a balance that could see US (and by extension, Japanese) influence in the region further compromised by China.
The map is very precarious right now and it isn’t being helped by the continued vilification of Duterte and members of his administration by global non-governmental institutions along with Western media and liberty groups – all of which can be traced right back to the doors of the current White House. Meanwhile, rash utterances from spokespeople of the US State Department further exacerbate the problem.
All that is what has made Abe’s task even more perilous. Definitely, tensions between Washington and Manila will be discussed; Abe has to broach that prickly subject and Duterte knows it. It’s also obvious that Tokyo is the natural honest broker for any rapprochement; it trades heavily with both countries and, post-WWII, it has been intrinsically entwined with both governments. But progress of easing tensions to any perceivable degree will likely be slim. Japan is a friend of the Philippines, but in an equal partnership. It certainly has no desire to take over the role from the US as the Philippines’ big brother. Nor does it want to be a relay station broadcasting America’s East Asia requirements.
It’s hard to overestimate how tricky Abe’s role in this is. The only time, post war, that Japan dipped its toe into the internal affairs of the Philippines was back during the administration of Corazon Aquino – and, oddly, over a related issue: the extension of the US military bases agreement. Aquino favoured the extension but the proposal was knocked back by the Philippine Senate.
That result was viewed negatively in Tokyo and both the Japanese prime minister and foreign minster of the day expressed their regret. But that’s all they did. They certainly didn’t mount a campaign to try and overthrow the decision of the people’s representatives. And they’re definitely not going to do that this time either. That said, Japan has been critical of America; and recently.
Back in May, during US President Barack Obama’s trip to Japan, Abe went after the US leader over his government’s mishandling of the murder of a Japanese woman on an Okinawa air base used by the Americans. He linked it to a long list of rapes and murders carried out by US military personnel against Japanese citizens – a situation that has become a running sore in Japan. And significantly, he warned that unless proper measures are taken to ensure that such crimes are not repeated, the future of American forces stationed in Japan could be adversely affected. That will have resonated well with Duterte who has singled out the forces agreements between his country and the US for special scrutiny.
The Philippine president, meanwhile, will have no intention of aggravating the Japanese. Japan is the Philippines’ biggest investor by multiples of America as well as being its premier aid donor and its top trading partner – a position it has held for more than 40 years. Last year, trade volume between the Philippines and Japan hit US$18.67 billion; between the Philippines and the US it was US$16 billion. And the signs are good that the Philippine president will secure even more Japanese trade and investment from this trip.
Government-to-government ties are tight. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is a strategic-development partner, and has been for more than 60 years. Last November JICA signed a US$2 billion loan deal to part fund a rail link between Manila and Bulacan. When completed this will be largest railway system in the archipelago and the largest assistance JICA has ever made for a single project anywhere. Abe’s main goal for the Duterte visit will be to further strengthen that strategic partnership.
On the investment front, the Philippine-Japan connection is also extremely healthy. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, the Philippines is the number one destination of fund outflows – a position previously held by both Thailand and Vietnam.
Duterte In the light of all this Duterte will not risk offending his Japanese hosts. So, outside of the predictably high trade deals which Duterte will secure, this visit will have more to do with form rather than substance. The joint communiqué at the conclusion of talks will mention “frank and free discussions”; “mutually beneficial” agreements reached; a further cementing of a deep and abiding friendship, a treasured relationship and on and on. But there is unlikely to be any breakthrough on the one issue that Washington wants resolved.
And then there’s the little matter or Russia. Duterte has made it clear that he’ll be seeking closer ties with the Russian Federation and there’s no reason to doubt that. But this is arguably a bigger headache for the Americans than China is; Moscow is Washington’s Public Enemy No.1 right now. But there are also tensions between Tokyo and Moscow; specifically, over Russia’s occupation of the Kurile islands – a similar dispute to the one which the Philippines has with China over island groups in the South China Sea – ironically, the dispute that led to the current political upheaval.
Given all that, Abe’s position – as piggy in the middle, squashed between what looks like two intractable forces – is all but impossible. He’ll do what he can, but the chances of him bringing home the bacon on this one are remote to put it generously.