MANILA – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday said he welcomes Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's move to improve relations between Philippines and China, following years of animosity brought by the South China Sea dispute.
Despite Tokyo’s growing concerns about the rise of China, Abe said he welcomes the improved relations between Manila and Beijing.
“I welcome the fact that President Duterte is making efforts to improve Sino-Philippine relations in light of the arbitral award,” Abe said in a joint statement.
“The significance of the rule of law, peaceful resolution of disputes and non-militarization has been confirmed at ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)-related meetings last year. Keeping in mind this year’s ASEAN affiliated meetings, we affirmed the importance of these.”
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has made efforts to forge closer ties with China, choosing to set aside Manila’s legal victory against Beijing over the South China Sea.
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.
Abe said, the South China Sea issue is "linked directly to regional peace and stability and is of concern to the entire international community."
Duterte’s warm treatment of China was in contrast to his repeated tirades to the Philippines’ long-time ally, the United States, which had called out the Filipino president for leading an illegal drug crackdown that has claimed the lives of thousands.
A July 2016 ruling of a Hague-based tribunal invalidated China's so-called "nine-dash line" claim to the resource-rich sea. China does not recognize the ruling and says its island-building in the Spratlys is within its sovereign rights.
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 over the contested waters. Tokyo is currently in control of the uninhabited rocks in the disputed East China Sea.
Manila is the Japanese leader’s first foreign trip of the year and Abe said this showed how he put “much emphasis” on his relationship with Duterte.
Abe’s visit to the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam also comes amid the backdrop of regional uncertainty brought by the election of Donald Trump as United States president.