OPINION: Big in Japan

The Explainer - Manolo Quezon

Posted at Oct 25 2016 09:24 PM

Japanese newsreel of the inauguration of the Japanese-sponsored republic, October, 1943. The dividing line, the “before” and “after” for generation of Filipinos in terms of relations with Japan, was World War II.

In February 1904, war broke out between Japan and Russia and US President Theodore Roosevelt remarked, “I like to see the war ending with Russia and Japan locked in a clinch, counter weighing one another, and both kept weak by the effort,” in the hope this would preserve America’s interests in Hawaii and the Philippines (the conquest of which had been Roosevelt’s brainchild). The war ended in defeat for Russia in 1905, marked by the stunning Japanese naval victory at Tsushima, acknowledged at the time as the greatest sea battle since Trafalgar, a century before. Roosevelt brokered the peace, and concluded that keeping the Philippines, in the long run, would be untenable for the United States. By 1916, eventual independence for the Philippines would become part of US policy. 

For Filipinos, Japan and its strong state combining military and industrial advancements, represented a model of independence and nationalism. Rizal, according to Dr. Pio Valenzuela during a conversation they had in which the Katipuneros laid out a plan to help Rizal escape from Dapitan, said he wanted to set up a school in Japan to train Filipino patriots. During the Philippine-American War, Japanese officers went to the Philippines to observe the fighting, and the Hong Kong Junta hoped to procure rifles from Japan in the war for independence.

In the 1920s and 30s, taking a cue from the Americans’ own Monroe Doctrine, there was a lot of discussion in the papers over the concept of “Asiatic Monroeism,” which asserted that Japan as a great regional power intended to exercise influence in Asia equivalent to that of the Americans in Latin America. Filipino leaders, worried whether the younger generation, which had not lived through the revolution against Spain or the war against America, had the character required for the challenges of independence, looked to the Samurai code of Bushido as an example to emulate in order to inspire a sense of service to the nation.

With independence assured in 1935, Filipino leaders also faced the dilemma of what the consequences of economic and political association with America would be in light of militarism and expansionism in Japan. Japan pursued an active policy of economic expansion in the Philippines, and cultivated relationships with Filipino leaders, who began to engage the Japanese in exploratory talks aimed at securing Japanese support for Philippine independence instead of totally relying on American goodwill.

This dilemma was most painfully revealed in the furious discussions among Filipino leaders in early 1942, as the Japanese invasion of the Philippines was taking place. The result was a proposal for both the Japanese and the Americans to withdraw from the Philippines. Even when the Japanese conquest was completed, and overall, Filipinos had staked their future on being part of the Allied powers, there remained the view that the future of the Philippines might have more in common with a defeated Japan than say, a victorious China (on the basis of Japan’s militarism being a temporary aberration in contrast to China’s inherent imperial identity dating back centuries).

After delaying its signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan until satisfactory reparations had been negotiated, the Philippines and Japan fairly quickly rebuilt a close relationship in the postwar years. Both nations formed part of the American network of bases and alliances during the Cold War; but Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution banned the existence of a military (instead relying on a “self-defense force” that today is one of the most powerful armed forces in the world). The result was that Philippine-Japanese relations were primarily commercial, though both nations in the post-Cold War era would grapple with problems concerning US bases.

Since the turn of the 21st Century, with the wartime generation having passed from the scene, Japan has increasingly become confident in projecting not only its soft–economic, cultural—power, but an emerging hard power as well. Amendments to the Japanese constitution to “normalize” the situation (that is, basically to allow the nation to have a proper military and engage in patrols and operations going beyond peace-keeping support) have been made --something previously unthinkable. At the heart of this new boldness is the realization that the United States no longer has the ability –or staying power—to hold the line against China, which has already overtaken Japan as the No. 2 economy in the world, thus posing a threat to Japan’s previous preeminence in our part of the world.

Japan’s strategy under its present prime minister has been to put forward a Trilateral dialogue scheme, which envisions a partnership between Tokyo, New Delhi, and Canberra. The result would be to limit China’s ability to project power in the region. The United States often enters into the mix, leading to the scheme being described from time to time as a Quadrilateral one. Quite recently, after enthusiasm for the scheme on the part of Australia seemed to wane over the past few years, an American admiral spoke up in New Delhi and a new boost has been given to the idea.

Back in 2005, in the face of pretty clear American dislike for President Arroyo, and at one of the moments of maximum peril for her stay in office, former President Fidel V. Ramos went to Malacañan Palace and expressed support for her. He was joined by Speaker Jose de Venecia who pointed out that China supported the president. It saved her government and an era of close engagement with China opened with this playing of the “China card.” The wind shifted in 2010 which Japan capitalized on by engaging in what turned out to be very effective engagements on both the economic and security fronts. 

JPEPA’s rules were clarified, opening up a window of opportunity for Filipino nurses, and visa requirements were relaxed, turning Japan into a favored destination for Filipino tourists. When China retaliated against the Philippines’ position on the West Philippine Sea by pre-terminating its loan for North Rail, Japan entered the picture and pledged to provide loans and help build the North and South railways. It also successfully negotiated for the Japanese standard in digital TV to be adopted by the Philippines.

On the security front, pledges were made to support the expansion of the Philippine Coast Guard through the transfer of coast guard vessels. Discussions were opened up to give teeth to a strategic partnership between the two countries by means of a possible Status of Forces Agreement (one already exists between the Philippines and the USA; there is Australia, and Japan would represent the third country given this kind of access). For his part, in his departure press conference yesterday, the President clearly expressed his disapproval of all Visiting Forces Agreements, something that will be pondered deeply by foreign capitals.

When the new administration took office, its first few weeks was marked by rivalry between China and Japan as the Chinese pushed to recover influence and the Japanese worked to ensure that previous agreements and commitments would be respected. For a time, it seemed as if Japan had gained a symbolic upper hand: the first visit to a major capital would be to Tokyo. But then a state visit to Beijing was announced. The Japanese prime minister smoothly, but pointedly, remarked he would be interested to find out what had transpired in Beijing. 

The competition between the two countries, however, is being carried out in a low-key manner, focused on marshaling the personal goodwill both nations enjoy with our current chief executive. The President is confident he can manage both capitals and extract the best concessions from both, without having to choose one over the other. If there is one fundamental difference, however, between the Filipino point of view and that of the two countries jockeying for influence in Southeast Asia, it is this: both Tokyo and Beijing think in terms of generations and not merely six-year-terms.

Additional readings:

See Your 60-second guide to the Russo-Japanese War and Theodore Roosevelt and the Russo-Japanese War

Here is an extract from the talk between Dr. Valenzuela and Rizal, June 21, 1896.

“Asiatic Monroeism” was discussed in Three years of enemy occupation: the issue of political collaboration in the Philippines by Claro M. Recto. For a modern revisiting of the concept see also Monroe Doctrines in Asia? by James Holmes.

For the prewar years, see Is Quezon courting Japan? From July 23, 1938 and “Mutual understanding,” July 23, 1938; an additional insight can be gained from the diary of Francis Burton Harrison, December 24, 1938. For the wartime years see The debate on taking the Philippines out of the war: January 28 to February 12, 1942 and Philippine wartime views on the future of Indonesia, China and Japan, both in The Philippine Diary Project.

Sorry, China: Why the Japanese Navy is the Best in Asia by Kyle Mizokami.

Strategic Triangle: A Japan-Australia-India Coalition at Sea? By James Holmes (2013).

How the Japan-India alliance could redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by Brahma Chellaney (2014).

The not-quite-quadrilateral: Australia, Japan and India by David Lang and Asia’s New Triple Alliance by Daniel Twining (2015).

Rodrigo Duterte began his first state visit to Japan, the Philippines’ top investor, by snubbing the host, in Quartz. And this editorial in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, October 23.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.