TOKYO- President Rodrigo Duterte hopes to visit Japan before November after cancelling his trip planned for June due to continuing operations against Islamist militants on the southern island of Mindanao, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Wednesday in Tokyo.
Duterte "commits to come as soon as possible before November" to maintain the countries' strong relations, the foreign secretary said as he paid a courtesy call on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe offered his "full support" for the ongoing fight against terrorism in Mindanao, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
The Philippines is set to chair the annual East Asia Summit, including Japan, in November.
Over 170 people have died in the fighting that began on May 23 between Islamic State-linked extremists and government forces in Mindanao, where Duterte has declared martial law. Cayetano told a press conference earlier in the day that the precise picture of the militants, such as the weapons they possess, is "difficult" to grasp.
"As of now, we are discovering things more every day," Cayetano said, adding that the militants were recently found to be "well-funded" with more than 50 million pesos ($1 million) in cash discovered in one of their hideouts.
Regarding the South China Sea, where China has been building artificial islands and military facilities despite the rival territorial claims of the Philippines and other countries, Cayetano said the priority is to ensure "peace and stability" in the region, expressing reluctance to heighten tensions with China.
"If we're going to be more confrontational to China we also have to be more confrontational to the other claimants...So in the interest of peace and stability, we are setting the environment for peaceful settlement of the dispute and getting all parties back to the negotiating table," he said.
But he added, "We are not giving up on any of our claims."
While Japan is not a claimant, the Abe government is concerned about Chinese activity in the waters given its own dispute with China over islets in the East China Sea.
But some Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines appear to be tilting towards China in a bid to draw investment to boost their economies, amid uncertainty over the U.S. commitment to the region under President Donald Trump.
A ruling last July by the U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague concluded that China's claim over almost the entire South China Sea has no legal basis. China has not accepted the decision in the case brought by Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino.