China, Japan back-to-back visits part of policy design


Behind the bluster and expletive-laced pronouncements of President Duterte, he is gradually giving shape to his avowed independent foreign policy – away from dependence on the United States. In this regard, his back-to-back official visits to China and Japan, and their reported results, provide an initial insight into how he aims to construct the policy edifice-in-progress.

President Duterte played it cozy with China and returned home with $24 billion in Chinese investment and financing commitments/offers. During his four-day visit, he announced “separation” from the US – but clarified, upon arriving in Davao, that separation didn’t mean severing diplomatic ties.

Renewed friendship and economic cooperation have resulted from the trip, in an apparent turnabout from the strain in Phl-China relations that built up, during the P-Noy administration, over the maritime-claims dispute in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea. The UNCLOS-related arbitral tribunal in The Hague, to which the P-Noy government had raised the dispute for settlement, decisively ruled in favor of the Philippines. But China adamantly refuses to recognize the ruling. Rather than engage China head-on, President Duterte opted to seek a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the issue, within the ambit of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He skirted discussions on military affairs or an alliance.

No, he didn’t talk of military alliance with China when he was there, Duterte assured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his three-day official visit to Japan (which has its own long-running dispute with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea). In turn, he got Abe to support his move to improve ties with China and to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in the WPS/SCS. However, he made it amply clear that when the time comes for formal discussions on the maritime dispute, he would cite the arbitral tribunal ruling and stand pat for its recognition and implementation.

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Knowing fully well that Japan is a US treaty ally and de facto surrogate in Asia, Duterte deftly assured Abe that he would maintain their alliance. “You can rest assured, and I give you my word, that we would stand by you when the time comes,” he said. Ironically evoking the repeated US avowal that its relations with the Philippines are “ironclad,” Duterte declared: “This is a relationship that stands on unshakable, firm ground by all counts.” He referred to Japan as “a friend closer than a brother.”

Like China, Japan committed/offered investment and financing to the Philippines, worth $19 billion.

In their joint statement, the two leaders avoided mentioning their security alliances with the US. However, Duterte boldly reiterated that he wanted American troops out of the Philippines within the next two years. He declared: “I want them out and if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, executive agreements [EDCA is one], I will.” How this would impact on Japan’s leaders and on the longstanding popular opposition to the continuing stay of 50,000 American troops and military bases in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, cannot yet be determined.

And while reiterating he would end joint US-Phl military exercises, Duterte said he was open to Phl-Japan joint naval exercises, which were discussed “in general terms” in Tokyo. One deal was signed, with Japan committing to loan $157-million in official development funds for two new large patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard to improve its maritime law enforcement and search and rescue operations. (Under an earlier loan, Japan had committed to provide 10 coast guard vessels.)

The renewed friendly ties with China and reaffirmed strong relations with Japan can be deemed as significant diplomatic gains for Duterte. These would enable the Philippines to avail of further economic assistance from both countries – the second and third largest economies in the world. It also buttresses Duterte’s dares to US investors to withdraw from the Philippines and to the US government to cut its financial aid to an ally that, he says, it has treated “like a dog on a leash.”

It’s interesting that the British newspaper Guardian, in a recent editorial, notes that Duterte’s harsh remarks on the US make his other “erratic and attention-grabbing” pronouncements appear as a “model of understatement and consistency.” It sees in Duterte’s tack an “attempt to extract advantage from the rival ambitions of the (US) and China” in view of a discernible shift in the region’s geopolitical situation: China’s growing economic and military power and increased confidence, complicated by “what the US has done, and what it hasn’t.”

Obama’s 2011 announcement of the US “pivot to Asia,” the editorial says, alarmed China which thereupon stepped up its military security buildup to counter America’s objective of containing its growth as a regional power. Obama has fallen short of fulfilling his goals, it adds, particularly the pivot’s key economic plank – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The US Senate has balked at endorsing the project, and both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump oppose it.

The timing of Duterte’s diplomatic move towards China also appears to jibe with the discernible tilt of Thailand and Malaysia towards closer relations with China, which both the Guardian and the New York Times have taken note of. Surveying the comments of analysts, the NYT points to a “broad impression that China may have started a strategic realignment in Southeast Asia by bringing an important American ally [the Philippines] to its side.” One analyst it quoted says Vietnam is rethinking its stance of leaning towards the US.

Much remains to be seen about this reported shifting geopolitical developments in Asia-Pacific, and how the Philippines during Duterte’s watch would figure in the flux. As matters stand now, not as a pushover or laggard, to be sure.

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Published in The Philippine Star
Oct. 29, 2016

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