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Tightening the ties

The Philippines is not just the closest Southeast Asian country to Japan in terms of air miles, it’s also the closest in terms of its relationships in that region. Philippine-Japan diplomatic ties go back 60 years. And so, appropriately, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first foreign trip of the New Year kicked off in Manila when he arrived there yesterday. At a state dinner held in Abe’s honour at the presidential palace of Malacañang last night, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed the head of a state which last time they met he referred to as “a special friend who is closer than a brother”.

This is the third time the two men have got together in less than five months. That’s frequent for meetings between two heads of state anywhere. But it highlights the affinity these two countries have with each other and underscores the fact that there are a number of pressing issues which they’re pledged to resolve.

Abe and Duterte met on the side lines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Lao capital, Vientiane, last September, just before Duterte’s three-day state visit to Japan in October. All indications are that the two men get on together extremely well; in the words of presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, “They have struck a resonant chord between the two of them …”

Before Abe leaves the Philippines for a Saturday appointment with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he and Duterte, will cover a lot of ground – not just in terms of policy discussions, but physically. Today they’ll fly to the other end of the country, to Duterte’s home town, Davao City in Mindanao, where Abe will meet with business leaders as he did yesterday in Manila.

Abe had expressed a special interest in going to Davao and visiting Duterte’s residence at Doña Luisa Subdivision in the city’s Matina district. This is hugely symbolic, denoting shrine-like respect for the place from which Duterte emerged late last year to make his bid for the presidency. This will be seen as an act of reverence – Abe had personally asked to go there and the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department included it in the schedule. This side trip is believed to be the first ever visit to Davao by an incumbent head of state.

Trade and investment is a big part of the two leaders’ discussions. In Tokyo, Duterte secured US$1.8 billon worth of business deals – 12 of them, and all private-sector joint ventures. He also secured pledges from the Japanese Government for US$203 million of yen-loan financing. Japan is the Philippines’ biggest partner in economic development.

Thus, hopes were high for similar deals and agreements being forged on this trip. And they were; Abe announced a further US$8.7 billion-worth of business opportunities over the next five years through both Official Development Assistance and investments from Japan’s private sector. A number of government-to-government agreements were also signed.

The Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro), an agency of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, views the Philippines – after China – as its prime destination for investments from Japanese companies. Jetro’s “China Plus One Strategy” refers to China plus the Philippines – the “One” position was previously held in turn by Thailand and Vietnam.

Supportive of Duterte’s war on drugs, Japan has intimated that it could be involved in the Philippine Government’s rehabilitation effort, aimed at bringing hundreds of thousands of crystal-meth addicts back into society – possibly by contributing to the construction of a new drug rehab centre; may be in Mindanao. We may get more flesh on the bones of that in the next few days.

As at their October get-together, one topic that is figuring large during the Philippines talks is security – both in a Philippine and a regional context. Specifically, at issue is maintaining safety on the high seas – the South China Sea and the Sulu and Sulewesi (Celebes) Seas – the often lawless maritime thoroughfares of terrorists, pirates, people traffickers and smugglers.

These waterways are among the most dangerous in the world with criminal gangs presenting a constant threat to international commercial shipping along the trade routes out of East Asia and to cargo vessels, cruise liners, oil barges and other craft throughout the ocean neighbourhoods of Asean-member states, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The two countries are already engaged in naval cooperation on a host of security issues including marine training and patrols with Japan supplying a number of marine craft to the Philippine Navy. And among the agreements signed yesterday was one for US$5 million to pay for boats and counter-terrorism equipment for the Philippine Coast Guard. The current talks are looking at further beefing up this cooperation and we expect to hear more details of how very shortly.

The other big issue which the two leaders are focusing on is the geopolitics of the wider region and America’s role in the tricky balance of power there. For while the Philippines is Japan’s closest Asian friend, the US is its closest globally. And there’s little doubt that Washington has been relaying its concerns through its Japanese proxy. In fact, prior to the visit, Japan’s almost said as much.

According to a senior Japanese official quoted in the Japan Times, a couple of days ago: “The trips are aimed at reaffirming the importance of the US alliance network in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthening coordination with major countries in the region. Japan hopes to fulfill a leading role in promoting close coordination with Asia-Pacific nations at a time when uncertainties are increasing in the political, security and economic fields”.

What that means is that right now Washington is worried about two issues – and both come under the heading of ‘China’. One relates to US trade and the weakened hopes of its planned Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP) project that seeks regional markets for American goods and the import of cheap regional goods to the States. The TPP, moreover, is aimed at containing China’s commercial power and ambitions.

The other is concerns US President Barack Obama’s much-vaunted ‘Pivot to East Asia’ – its switch of emphasis to this region from the Middle East where its become bogged down in wars and also Europe which is suffering from a prolonged economic slowdown. But Obama’s East Asia spin-off is actually about creating a stronger military presence in China’s backyard which it believes will thwart China’s political and expansionist ambitions. And for that it needs the backing and support of the Southeast Asian nations. Abe will be attempting to galvanise that support on this tour.

Duterte, of course, threw a spanner into the works of all that when he did his own Pivot to East Asia back in October – moving away from Washington and close to Beijing. Japan itself has no problem in a renewal of ties between the Philippines and China. In October, following Duterte’s visit to Tokyo, Abe remarked: “Japan welcomes the effort of President Duterte visiting China and endeavouring to improve Philippine-China relations”.

That said, Tokyo certainly shares some of Washington’s concerns over the Mainland’s activities in the South China Sea; it’s military build-up of remote maritime outposts in particular. On Christmas Day, China’s sole aircraft carrier, Liaoning, accompanied by three guided-missile destroyers and two frigates entered the Western Pacific to conduct open-sea training exercises. This has never happened before, but according to the People’s Daily, China’s biggest newspaper and the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, “this is the new normal”.

Playing exactly the same peace card as America has done traditionally in explaining its presence in this region, the People’s Daily writer – most likely an official in the People’s Liberation Army –   explained: “If we [China[ are to bear the responsibility of maintaining the peace, we cannot squat in a typhoon shelter. We have to react swiftly if needed. Be brave to show force and actions speak louder than words”.

And that was certainly meant for US consumption. It was a clear message to Washington and the Pentagon where the Chief of Naval Operations resides that Beijing would not be cowed by Obama’s rhetoric and that of his White House spokespeople.

All this is a thorny issue for Duterte and Abe to confront – particularly China’s military build-up; the Philippines is not a signed-up member of the TPP and has little interest in it. Also its future is looking uncertain with US president-elect, Donald Trump, threatening to scrap it.

But on China’s increased maritime military adventure and America’s regional interests, the Japanese prime minister was forthright, despite the fact that Duterte’s position is abundantly clear – he sees America as a shackle of the past and China as a hope of the future. Leaving little wiggle room, Abe said: “The issue of the South China Sea is linked directly to regional peace and stability and is a concern to the entire international community”. In short, this is not a local issue and Tokyo is backing Washington.

From Australia, Abe will go on to Indonesia and Vietnam where his six-day tour will end before he flies back to Tokyo. Three days later, Donald J. Trump will enter the White House as the 45th President of the United States and all issues of trade and geopolitics will be looked at afresh.

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