Government officials on Friday rushed to analyze the implications of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s surprise announcement that his nation was “separating” from the United States but publicly played down any impact ahead of his planned visit to Tokyo starting Tuesday.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long tried to strengthen Japan’s ties with the Philippines in an attempt to keep China in-check following territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But in Beijing on Thursday, Duterte reportedly announced both economic and military “separation” from the United States, Japan’s sole military ally.
“Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte reportedly told Chinese and Philippine business people during a forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The event was attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.
“Both in military — not maybe social — but economics also, America has lost,” Duterte was quoted as saying. He did not elaborate further.
Earlier this year, prior to a ruling handed down by an international tribunal in The Hague, Beijing and Manila were engaged in a fierce diplomatic battle concerning a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
On Thursday, the leaders of the two countries agreed to resume direct talks about the dispute, an apparent sign of improving relations.
If Duterte actually weakens Manila’s ties with the U.S. and instead leans further toward China, it will be problematic for Japanese diplomacy, experts said.
Japan has already agreed to provide the Philippines with up to five TC-90 training jets. Also, it has agreed to build and hand over 10 40-meter-long patrol vessels to beef up the country’s coast guard capability. The first of the 10 ships arrived in the Philippines on Aug. 18.
During a regular press briefing that was held in Tokyo on Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on Duterte’s remarks, saying they concern matters related to bilateral relations between China and the Philippines.
Suga at the same time said Japan is “collecting information” on what is actually happening between the leaders of those two countries.”Next week President Duterte plans to visit Japan. Using this opportunity, we will work to further develop our strategic partnership with the Philippines,” Suga said.
Duterte’s announcement in Beijing has perplexed officials in Washington. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that “it is inexplicably at odds with the very close relationship that we have with the Filipino people, as well as the government there on many different levels.”
“We are going to be seeking an explanation of exactly what the president meant when he talked about separation from the U.S.,” Kirby said.
A high-ranking Japanese government official tried to play down any impact on the planned Duterte-Abe meeting next week. “Last time Abe met Duterte,” in Laos in September, “we found he is a man of common sense,” the official said.
Abe and Duterte will first try to cement the relationship between the two countries during the meeting, rather than discuss the China-Philippines relationship, the official said.
Wataru Kusaka, an associate professor of political science at Nagoya University and an expert on Philippine affairs, said Duterte has probably had anti-U.S. feelings for a long time and that some of his core supporters, in particular up-and-coming business leaders, want to strengthen economic ties with China rather than the U.S.
Yet Duterte is a pragmatist who often quickly withdraws his remarks or policies if he finds them to be too problematic, he said.
Kusaka said the Filipino military has traditionally been a powerful pro-U.S. political force, another reason that Duterte may revise his pro-China stance and lean toward the U.S. again, depending on what situations arise.
“So you need to keep watching his pattern of actions over the middle- to long-term period” before drawing any conclusions about Duterte’s provocative rhetoric, he said.
Kusaka said Duterte is probably trying to increase his diplomatic bargaining power against the U.S. by threatening to cut off economic and military ties.
On the other hand, to date Duterte has maintained a very friendly and diplomatic approach to Japan, and has repeatedly thanked Japan for providing “generous” economic assistance to Manila, Kusaka pointed out.
He said the best possible scenario for Duterte is to have China and Japan competing against each other on development aid to the Philippines.
“Such a competition between China and Japan has actually taken place in countries like Cambodia,” Kusaka said.
As a result Japan now needs to juggle difficult diplomatic issues among China, the U.S. and the Philippines, he said.
“Japan is now in a rather tough position,” Kusaka added.