National

Japan tries to decode Duterte after joint U.S. patrols halted

by Alastair Wanklyn and Ayako Mie

Staff Writers

A day after the Philippine president said he plans to halt joint maritime patrols with foreign navies, Japan’s government was trying to make sense of developments, with one senior official saying Tokyo will persevere with a nuanced approach to ties.

The assertion by Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte was the latest in a string of comments suggesting that he will rewire his nation’s security relationships, despite assertions by other government officials that no fuses have blown.

On Tuesday, Duterte told troops that they will no longer conduct joint patrols with the United States or other countries, citing the risk of triggering conflict in disputed waters. The U.S. initiated such maneuvers this year, before Duterte’s election to office.

The president also said Manila may look at buying military equipment from China and Russia after being offered soft loans payable years from now. He instructed his defense secretary to visit both nations and see what is available.

Despite the heated rhetoric, he told the military audience he does not plan to sever ties with Washington. But the comments came on the heels of a pledge to kick out U.S. special forces from the southern island of Mindanao, where they have spent more than a decade supporting offensives against Islamist separatists.

The State Department on Monday characterized some of Duterte’s recent comments as “unhelpful,” but added that the U.S. commitment remains unchanged.

“We still believe in the importance of this bilateral relationship,” spokesman John Kirby said.

On Wednesday, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Tokyo and Washington “share the same goal” in the Philippines but take different approaches, as there are some things that Manila can only accept when Japan provides them.

“The U.S. and Japan continue to share information and continue to work together,” the official said. “Because we have the same goal, we can divide our roles.”

Washington and Tokyo have pushed adherence to the “rule of law” for settling maritime disputes, usually in pointed references to rows in both the South and East China seas.

On Sept. 6, Tokyo agreed to give the Philippines two large patrol vessels and lease it five TC-90 surveillance planes. Japan is also supplying 10 smaller coastal patrol vessels, the first of which was delivered on Aug. 18.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada hailed the latest agreement, saying it is important to send support to the Philippines to strengthen Japan’s own defense capabilities.

She was expected to set off for Washington on Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, one regional affairs analyst in the Philippines said Duterte’s cessation of joint maritime patrols could lead to a sharp improvement in ties with Beijing.

“He knows that if we keep on patrolling we cannot get the islands anyway, and we will continue to antagonize the Chinese,” Benito Lim of Ateneo de Manila University said. “In the meantime, there are many good things that we can enter into with China, such as trade and economic relations.”

Attention is now focusing on how ties between Beijing and Manila will develop. Lim believes Chinese President Xi Jinping will offer a deal that dodges the question of island sovereignty.

“Probably the most we can get is to ask that they allow our fishermen to have fishing rights in those places,” he said.

Lim said since Japan and the U.S. are the Philippines’ top two trading partners — determining which is No. 1 depends on the measurement — neither should be worried by Duterte’s apparent shake-up of ties with China.

“It involves economics, and it should be a win-win situation,” he said.

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