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Asia

Can Tokyo bring Washington and Manila closer together?

On his visit to Tokyo, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte emphasized the importance of Japan for the economic development of his country, while reiterating his anti-US stance. Martin Fritz reports.

The much feared faux pas at the meeting between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the Japanese Emperor Akihito did not materialize, causing officials from both sides to breathe a sigh of relief.

Fears had been expressed ahead of the event about Duterte's penchant for controversial remarks and gestures, and how he would behave while meeting the emperor, who is a deeply venerated figure in Japan. 

Those concerns were justified, particularly after Duterte was seen chewing gum during his recent meeting with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing. The Philippine leader also stood at that event with his hands in his pockets.

A repeat of such acts in Tokyo would have been viewed by the Japanese, renowned for their strict codes of conduct, as an insult to the greatly respected Akihito.

But the meeting was canceled at the last minute due to the passing away of the emperor's uncle, Prince Mikasa.

Duterte's three-day trip to Japan, therefore, concluded without any major diplomatic mishaps that observers had been worried about.

Discussing the US policy

Before ending his visit, Duterte proposed joint military exercises with Japan, while reiterating that they will not take place between Philippine and US troops as long as he remains president.

Since he became president several months ago, Duterte has been distancing Manila from Washington. And he even announced the Philippines' "separation" from the US during his recent China tour.

In contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strived to strengthen the US-Japanese alliance, including reinterpreting his country's strictly pacifist constitution.

Duterte said Abe asked him to explain his US policy but did not offer to mediate the chilling relations between the Washington and Manila.

"I told him why I feel bad about the Americans," the Philippine leader said. "Everytime there's an issue, whether human rights or whatever, we are treated like a dog on a leash and they throw the (food) far away so you can't reach it."

He said Abe did not attempt to mediate, noting, "To his ... credit, Minister Abe is a very courteous man."

Bolstering ties

Duterte, however, reassured his host that closer ties between Manila and Beijing wouldn't negatively affect relations between the Philippines and Japan. 

"Things have changed, but the Philippines would like to reconnect with Japan, and to assure you that we remain your true and loyal partner," Duterte told Abe.

His visits to other countries were only about business and trade, and not about military or other alliances, Duterte noted. The Japanese premier honored these remarks by welcoming the rapprochement between China and the Philippines.

At the joint press conference following the meeting, Duterte employed the same kind of terminology that Abe did regarding rival territorial claims in the South China Sea. 

"The Philippines will continue to work closely with Japan on issues of common concern in the region and uphold the shared values of democracy, adherence to the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes, including in the South China Sea," Duterte said.

Relations between the two countries have been cordial in recent years, and Japan has even provided patrol boats to the Philippines to help the country bolster its defensive capabilities. Tokyo is also delivering surveillance planes to Manila that can be deployed to better secure its territorial interests.

Conflict resolution

Abe, who has long insisted on the primacy of international law in settling disputes, seemed to agree with Duterte. The Philippines is "an important partner with which we share fundamental values," Abe noted, adding that the two leaders agreed that regional territorial disputes would have to be resolved on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international conventions, without resorting to threats and violence. 

In July, an international tribunal dismissed China's expansive territorial claims in the SCS, a vital waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims over parts of the sea, leading to increasing tensions in the region.

For the Philippines, Japan is the most important trading partner and source of development aid. And we want to further strengthen the bilateral trade and investment partnership, particularly in industry and agriculture, said Duterte, pointing out that Japanese investments are crucial for boosting his country's economic growth.

Meanwhile, Abe remained silent on Duterte's brutal campaign against drugs and crime that is reported to have so far led to the deaths of over 3,000 people in the hands of police and vigilante groups.

The clampdown is seen in the West as a violation of human rights, drawing criticism from countries like the US, which has infuriated Duterte.

No military cooperation

Furthermore, addressing an investment forum in the Japanese capital, Duterte said he wants foreign troops out of his country possibly within the next two years.

Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, however, later explained Duterte's policy by saying that the president respects all bilateral security agreements with the US and that he has no intention to renege or breach them.

But the joint exercises with the US are not helpful in fostering Manila's friendly relations with Beijing, Yasay noted.

The US maintains five military bases in the Philippines and they are seen as critical to counter China's growing military assertiveness in the region.

At the same time, Duterte attempted to soothe the concerns of those worried about his pro-China bent, by stressing that any cooperation with China would be purely economic and non-military in nature. "We haven't spoken about weapons or about the deployment of troops," said Duterte when he was in Beijing last week. Experts say the balancing act from Duterte and Abe suggests that Tokyo could emerge as an important intermediary between Washington and Manila in the coming months.