“Tonight, let me reiterate that Japan is a friend closer than a brother. That means Japan is a friend unlike any other,” President Rodrigo Duterte exclaimed with poetic conviction in Malacañang during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “Ours is a special friendship whose value is beyond any measure.” This was perhaps one of the most sincere and sentimental diplomatic statements by the president to this date.
Few days earlier, during the vin d'honneur toast among the dignitaries, Duterte evinced his eager anticipation of Abe’s visit and special bond with Japan by jovially declaring ‘Kampai’. There is no way to understate Duterte’s fascination with the ‘land of rising sun’, which, for more than a century, has been an integral component of Davao City’s development as a frontier, export-oriented hub in the island of Mindanao.
During his mayoral stint, Duterte could always count on the Japanese government for infrastructure and development aid, while the Japanese businessmen, who provided jobs on large-scale, never failed to bet on Filipino work ethic and commitment. Above all, he could count on their legendary politeness and their attention to detail, context and nuances.
Duterte’s relations with the two superpowers of China and America were comparatively superficial, if not less cordial. With Uncle Sam, it was mostly about military exercises and counter-terror operations. And there were surely tensions lurking in the shadows, often bursting into the open way before Duterte took over the office of presidency. With the rising dragon, it was perhaps mostly through the influential Filipino-Chinese business community in Davao.
Based on my conversations with senior officials and businessmen from across the Asia-Pacific region, I always noticed how the Japanese seemed to be the most eager, if not overly bullish, about the Duterte presidency. Perhaps it is because they have hoped, quite correctly, that the mutual good will and generosity of heart from the good old days Davao would be carried over into Malacanang.
Yes, the Japanese were quite disappointed that Duterte snubbed them in favor of China for his first major state visit. But they were more than adamant to please their old friend from Davao, when he visited Tokyo just five days after Dutetre’s high-profile visit to Beijing, where he declared ‘separation’ from America and offered to join China’s ‘ideological flow’. While just an ‘official visit’, Duterte received what would essentially amount to a state visit treatment, not to mention an arranged once-in-a-lifetime audience with the Japanese Emperor Akihito.
Eager to remind the hosts of his continued good will towards Japan, Duterte reassuringly declared, “You know I went to China for a visit. And I would like to assure you that all there was [is] economics. We did not talk about arms. We avoided talking about [military] alliances.”
The Japanese surely didn’t disappoint. They almost matched whatever economic incentives China offered Duterte.
Moreover, Prime Minister Abe reassured Duterte that he would be the first head of government to visit the Philippines since Benigno Aquino III left office. And true to his promise, Abe visited not only Manila, but also Davao and Duterte’s humble abode for an intimate breakfast. The world saw, with pleasant astonishment, personal diplomacy at its finest, with durian, Philippine eagle, and delicious Filipino cuisine embellishing an already warm and special bilateral relationship.
On the surface, this was a routine exercise in diplomatic niceties, meant to preserve and deepen one of the strongest bilateral relationships in the region. A relationship that has blossomed even more since Abe returned to power in late-2012.
More fundamentally, however, this was about Japan doing its best to ensure Philippine-American relations don’t go off the trail, while maintaining a strong alliance against Chinese maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters, from the East China Sea to the West Philippine Sea. With the Philippines assuming the mantle of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and emerging as one of the most promising economies in Asia, Japan has attached even greater importance to its relations with Manila.
Cognizant of Duterte’s extraordinary popularity, not to mention firm grip over state institutions, Japan is more than eager to win the heart of the Filipino president, who has singlehandedly shaken up the regional geopolitical landscape by playing great powers against each other, threatening to end the Philippines’ century-old alliance with America, and flirting with deeper military cooperation with Russia and China. All of a sudden, Japan has become the linchpin of the existing order in Asia.
Note: This article is part 1 of a two-series essay on Philippine-Japan relations under Duterte.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.