How Close Ties With Japan Fit Duterte's 'Balanced Foreign Policy'

© REUTERS / Kim Kyung-HoonPhilippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends Philippines Economic Forum in Tokyo, Japan October 26, 2016.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends Philippines Economic Forum in Tokyo, Japan October 26, 2016. - Sputnik International
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Sputnik has discussed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's visit to Japan with a professor of Development Studies and Public Management at the University of the Philippines in Manila, an associate researcher specialized in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan and a Singapore-based professor.

MOSCOW (Sputnik), Tommy Yang — Maintaining warm relations with important regional countries such as Japan fits Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s independent foreign policy to secure maximum gain from all countries, experts told Sputnik.

Duterte has arrived in Tokyo and held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who won the latest snap election in Japan with a landslide victory.

"Our commitment and resolve show the desire to further expand cooperative ties. I dare say that, considering what we have accomplished and achieved, the Philippines and Japan are building a golden age [for] our strategic partnership," Duterte said following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as quoted by the Philippine Star newspaper.

Duterte has also expressed his gratitude to Japan for its commitment to providing nearly $9 billion in aid to the Philippines, intended for infrastructure projects.

In his turn, Abe promised to support Duterte government in rebuilding the city of Marawi, previously held by terrorists and only recently recaptured by the government forces.

The Philippine president’s visit to Japan comes just a week before two key regional summits, the APEC Summit, expected to be held on November 11-12, and the upcoming ASEAN Summit in the Philippines on November 10-14.

Avoid Being a Pawn

"I think that President Duterte's strategy in terms of economic, political and security is to secure the maximum gain from all countries. This is what he refers to as a balanced and independent foreign policy. He will expand ties with China, Russia and Japan without necessarily downgrading relations with the United States. It is also a strategy that he is using in the South China Sea issue so that the Philippines will not be a pawn to any foreign power," Roland Simbulan, a professor of Development Studies and Public Management at the University of the Philippines in Manila, told Sputnik.

The Philippine scholar explained that Japan played an important role in local economic development in the Philippines, even in the early stage of Duterte’s political career.

"Japan has always been important for President Duterte. When he was mayor of Davao city, Japanese investments and Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) were a significant partner for Davao’s economic development. Japan's bilateral ODA as well as its influence in the Asian Development Bank have always been an important source of financing for Philippine development projects especially for its infrastructure development, a factor which makes it attract more foreign investments and capital," Simbulan said.

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Japan’s ODA is an office under the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose purpose is to assist developing nations with supplies, civil engineering and other assistance. Japan remained the Philippines’ top source of loans for the first half of 2017, according to the National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines.

The Philippines received $4.84 billion in loans from Japan’s ODA in the first half of 2017, accounting for 44.83 percent of the country’s ODA loans portfolio.

Japan Offers Counterbalance

"Partnership with Tokyo allows Manila to break free from the US-China competition paradox in the Asia Pacific. By cultivating the relationship with and getting aid from Japan, Manila does not have to put all its eggs in either Chinese or American baskets. It can rely on an attentive and cash-laden friend, which highly values its relations with Manila as a way to counterbalance China’s influence in Southeast Asia and the West Pacific. The last thing Japan wants to see the Philippines being too dependent on China and Manila’s economic relations with Beijing morphing into geopolitical alignment," Fabrizio Bozzato, an associate researcher specialized in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan, told Sputnik.

According to Bozzato, Duterte’s strategy has turned around the fate of his country in the region.

"Figuratively speaking, Duterte sees his country as the regional Cinderella, who was once neglected in the condition of servitude to the United States. And now, because of him, ‘the fairy godfather,’ his country has become a beautiful princess going to an elegant reception, the two regional summits, on a golden coach pulled by many horses. Japan has become one of the Cinderella’s many suitors. The strategic partnership with Japan is the best insurance for the Philippines to have an independent foreign policy."

Foreign Policy

US President Donald Trump is expected to visit the Philippines and take part in the upcoming ASEAN Summit held there, during his Asia tour in November, which includes also stops in Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam.

Simbulan, the Philippine expert, suggested that Trump’s attention to the Philippines was a good indication that Duterte’s balanced foreign policy was paying off.

"US President Trump needs to visit the Philippines for the ASEAN summit so that the United States will not be sidelined by its absence and abdication of its role in the ASEAN. China is already playing a vital economic and political role in the ASEAN summit and the United States does not want to be left behind. Already, the balanced relationship of the Duterte administration is paying off," he said.

However, Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school, argued that Trump’s trip was not about trying to win over Duterte, as the United States is expected to continue to play an important role for the Philippines.

"Trump’s trip to Manila is to show that the US is engaged and values ASEAN. It’s not about trying to win over the Philippines. No point. The Philippines has already declared it will be friendly to China and Russia at the time keeping the [US-Philippine Mutual Defense] Treaty. The United States will remain important for the Philippines in so far as it is helpful in the war on terror, defense modernization and disaster relief," Araral said.

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The Singapore-based expert pointed out that the strategic location of the Philippines in Asia-Pacific makes it a crucial ally for the United States in the region.

"The Philippines will remain a key pillar of US strategy in Asia Pacific because of its strategic location between South China Sea and as Asia’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean. It remains a treaty ally of the United States and Filipinos have deep cultural and emotional ties with Americans," Araral said.

No Defection to China or Russia

After taking office in 2016, Duterte continued to seek closer military ties with China and Russia, to help the Philippines move away from its excessive dependence on the United States for national security.

Following Duterte’s visit to Moscow in May, the Philippines and Russia reached an agreement on defense industry cooperation, which would allow Manila to purchase Russian military equipment. On October 16, Philippine ambassador to Russia Carlos Sorreta told Sputnik that Moscow would hand over to Manila a batch of Kalashnikov assault rifles, munition and military trucks. In early October, the Philippines received a second shipment of 3,000 assault rifles from China this year, in what was described as a gesture of "friendly and cooperative relations" from Beijing.

However, Simbulan believes Duterte is not willing to prioritize the Philippines’ military ties with China and Russia, over the military alliance with the United States.

"I don't think that Duterte intends to defect into the arms of China or Russia; he only wants to expand our foreign relations so that we can maximize the benefits we can derive from all countries of the world. President Duterte has enough pro-US generals in his cabinet (interior and local government, environment, national defense, and national security) to assure his close relationship with the United States. It has already been long established that the strategic location of the Philippines in the Western Pacific gives it the advantage for the ‘forward-basing strategy’ of the Pentagon," Simbulan said.

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Araral, the Singapore-based expert, agreed and noted that arms deals with China and Russia are not significant enough to challenge the defense treaty between the Philippines and the United States.

"Those [military deals with China and Russia] are small arms. The Philippines is unlikely to drop its defense treaty with the United States. It’s insurance."

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