Amid Duterte-U.S. row, attention turns to Japan

by

Staff Writer

Citing bruising reprimands from Washington, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday he may pursue new alliances with Russia and China after those nations urged him to turn away from the U.S.

Duterte threatened to tear up a historic agreement that has seen the U.S. send troops and military hardware to the Philippines. He called the 2014 document a mere executive agreement that can be cast aside as it was drafted by a previous administration.

“Tomorrow I will be friends with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported Duterte as telling an audience in the Philippine city of Bacolod.

He did not address the state of ties with Japan, but the statement suggested a growing role for Tokyo in the Philippines as a counterbalance to China. Japan remains the nation’s largest investor, and Filipino workers in Japan remain an important source of remittances.

Duterte has earned censure not only from the U.S. but also from the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and the influential Catholic Church in the Philippines for disregarding due process in a deadly crackdown on drug pushers and addicts.

It has been Washington’s criticism that has stung the most.

In a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Laos last month, Duterte said he railed against the U.S. over perceived heavy-handedness, and that Medvedev offered to help.

“I met with Medvedev,” Duterte said. “I told him this is the situation: They are giving me a hard time, they are disrespecting me; they are shameless.

“He said: ‘That is really how the Americans are.’ He said: ‘We will help you.’ ”

Duterte also said Sunday that unnamed Chinese officials have urged him to side with Beijing over Washington.

“The implications for regional peace and order are huge, especially since Duterte is signaling a potential long term military partnership with Beijing and threatens decoupling from America,” said Richard Heydarian, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

“Japan, meanwhile, remains the top economic partner of the Philippines, and it is perhaps the only ‘Western’ country with a healthy and cordial relationship with Manila, making it a key counterbalancing factor to China’s expected rising influence in the Philippines.”

Since his election, Duterte has said little about the future of ties with Japan.

A Philippine business delegation will accompany Duterte on a visit to Beijing from Oct. 19-21, where he is expected to hold talks with Xi and to pitch for investment.

He will then reportedly embark on a visit to Japan, though Tokyo has not confirmed the trip.

In March, two Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers and a submarine paid a visit to the Philippines, the first such port visit in 15 years. Tokyo and Manila also have struck up a capacity-building partnership, with Japan agreeing to donate 10 coastal patrol vessels and to lease training aircraft. The first of the vessels was delivered in August.

The U.S. views the Philippines as an important cog in its “pivot” to Asia and as a key ally amid China’s moves in the disputed South China Sea.

The U.S. agreement Duterte took aim at Sunday is the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, signed a few days before Obama visited the Philippines in 2014.

It allows U.S. troops to build storage facilities for maritime security and humanitarian and disaster response operations and provides access to Philippine military bases, including those that were formerly fully fledged U.S. sites such as Clark Air Base and the naval facility at Subic Bay.

Duterte did not explicitly say that he would scrap the deal, but said: “Better think twice now, because I would be asking you to leave the Philippines altogether.”

Under the defense agreement, two C-130 transport planes and 100 U.S. servicemen have been at an air base in the central Philippines since Sept. 25 as part of a two-week exercise.

The White House canceled planned talks last month between U.S. President Barack Obama and Duterte in Laos after the Philippine leader unleashed a foul-mouthed tirade. At the time, U.S. officials hoped the outburst was a one-off by a rookie head of state uncomfortable with his new responsibilities, but it swiftly led to other damaging developments and relations slid sharply.

On Saturday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S.-Philippine alliance needs “a sense of shared interests.” He said Washington will patiently watch for signs that it can continue.

Information from Reuters added