President Rodrigo Duterte’s now concluded three-day visit to Japan exceeded expectations – apart from for his critics. It was almost everything they had hoped it wouldn’t be. It was low-key; it was handled diplomatically; there were no social gaffes and the closing sequence revealed one of the closest bilateral relationships of anywhere in the world. If his recent trip to China provided a feeding frenzy for the international media, this one put them in the hunger queue.
Pledges made included ¥21.3 billion (US$203 million) in yen loans, earmarked for agricultural development projects on the southern island of Mindanao; drug-rehabilitation programmes to assist Filipino addicts and help to bring them back into society; the building of two large patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard and the supply of a number of naval craft.
That might sound like a modest package compared to the one Duterte brought back from China last week – among it, deals worth US$13.5 billion and US$9 billion in soft loans – but Japan is already (and has long been) the Philippines biggest-by-far donor, aid-giving and investor country. There’s no question, without Japan’s robust financial and logistical backing, the Philippines would have problems. This trip, from both sides then, was more about confirming unreservedly that their strategic partnership was as healthy as ever. That was the message; that was the optic and it was achieved flawlessly.
“Today we have taken steps to ensure that our ties remain vibrant and will gain greater strength in the years to come,” said Duterte at the conclusion of the talks. Japan, he said was “a special friend who is closer than a brother”.
The subject of China was most definitely raised – and, no less, in the context of the need to maintain a power equilibrium within the sea ways of East Asia. The Volatilian™ didn’t have a tame fly on the wall in the room where Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, spent 70 minutes in one-on-one talks, but the 15-point communiqué release at the end – couched in the usual diplospeak – was revealing enough. Significantly, the word China (in reference to the country) doesn’t appear once. Equally significantly, is that seven of the joint-statement items dealt solely with maritime issues. They related to safety, security, cooperation, navy training, the supply of marine craft and resolving sea-territory disputes.
The equally thistley subject (from Duterte’s side) of America’s presence in East Asia was also discussed – at least it was explained by Abe in terms of important alliances designed to protect the sea lanes and international shipping and maintain peaceful cohabitation between the region’s countries. And while they both have very different viewpoints over their respective alliances with the US, Duterte assured his Japanese host that it was not his intention to cut diplomatic ties with Washington.
Consequently, there was no red meat for the baying media hounds to tear at; no chink between the two leaders’ positions for liberty groups to prise apart and exploit. And that’s certainly what they would have liked. Prior to the visit they had conjectured that Duterte’s Japanese hosts would be offended by him chewing gum. He didn’t and they weren’t. That he wouldn’t know the royal protocol when meeting Japanese Emperor Akihito. We’ll never know; the meeting was cancelled out of respect following the death of the Emperor’s 100-year-old uncle, Prince Mikasa.
More expectedly, that Duterte would embarrass the Japanese prime minister by going on an uncontrolled rant against US imperialism. That never happened either. And that the new Manila-Beijing nexus would cause friction, given Tokyo’s own disputes with the Mainland. Well, far from it; at the end of their private talks Abe had this to say: “Japan welcomes the effort of President Duterte visiting China and endeavouring to improve Philippine-China relations”. Hard to imagine that coming from any mouthpiece of the current White House – particularly considering the lead role it played in pushing Duterte Chinawards.
Since Duterte’s return, however, he’s provided the media sideshow with some fresh material. At a press briefing he revealed that while war games with the US military would end, there was a prospect of joint naval exercises with Japan, though why Filipino-Japanese sea drills would cause Washington any concern is hard to fathom. Given that Tokyo is providing Manila with a small armada of naval and coast guard vessels and has also undertaken to train the Philippine Navy – and that both parties are fully committed to maintaining safety and security on the ocean waves – joint exercises between the two would seem not just desirable but necessary.
To sum up this trip then, it’s fair to say that there were never any high hopes of a breakthrough being reached over the deep fracture in US-Philippine relations. But it still did more than most expected. It calmed the waters. Each leader showed respect for the other’s position regarding Washington’s desire to be a regional player. And as far as Philippines-Japan relations are concerned, it couldn’t have gone much better.
Appropriately, this year marks the diamond anniversary of the re-establishing of Philippine-Japanese relations, 1956 to 2016.