MANILA – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday arrived in the Philippines, his first stop of a four-nation trip in the Asia Pacific, highlighting the importance of Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors.
Abe’s visit to the Philippines, his first overseas trip this year, comes amid a backdrop of uncertainty in the Asia Pacific region following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and Duterte’s cozying up to China, Japan’s main rival in the region.
The South China Sea dispute is likely to come up in the bilateral discussion between the two leaders, in light of concerns in Tokyo over Duterte’s decision to set aside the Philippines’ arbitral tribunal victory over China.
Japan, while not a claimant to the South China Sea, relies heavily on the unimpeded passage through the resource-rich area. Its key ally, the US, has also repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the sea lane.
Japan has a separate dispute with China in the East China Sea, where tension has been high in recent months due to Beijing’s deployment of aircraft.
In his opening statement, Abe said he would like to have a “candid discussion” with Duterte on a range of issues.
“I chose the Philippines as my first destination this year and that is a testament to my primary emphasis on our bilateral relations with the Philippines,” Abe said.
“Let us work hand in hand in addressing the challenges of the Asia Pacific region.”
Duterte also holds in high regard Manila’s relations with Tokyo, its largest donor and top trading partner.
Despite condemnation from the US and the United Nations of Duterte’s war on drugs, which has so far claimed around 6,000 lives, Japan has not criticized the new government's bloody campaign.
Aside from the South China Sea dispute, Abe and Duterte are also expected to discuss trade and investments, defense, the Mindanao peace process, and the fight against criminality.
“We can identify ways of building on agreements we have made on a wide range of issues that will benefit both our nations and people,” Duterte said.
“Let us continue to work together to achieve goals of a more stable and secure region so that our nations and peoples can enjoy more peace, progress and prosperity.”