International relations, National security, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

25 October 2016

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Japan puts Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a difficult diplomatic position, Stephen R Nagy writes.

President Duterte’s visit to Beijing last week and subsequent comments referring to the economic and military separation of the Philippines from the US left observers in both countries unsettled and confused. If rhetoric translates into action, a major partner in the US’ pivot to the Asia-Pacific will have been lost.

The impact of Duterte’s comments in Beijing are also being analysed by policymakers in Tokyo where the firebrand Philippine president starts his visit today. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership, Japan has been proactively reaching out to Southeast Asian countries in the form of economic and security cooperation under the rubric of the “The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy“, which is based on the promotion of so-called international norms of human rights, democracy, freedom of press, rule-based freedom of navigation, free and open economics, fruitful cultural exchanges, and the promotion of culture exchanges among youth. This outreach has included the Philippines.

On the security front, Japan has, in many ways, tied its territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea (ECS) over the Senkaku / Diaoyutai islands to the multinational territorial disputes China has with some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea (SCS). Advocating the use and acceptance of international law to resolve recognised or unrecognised territorial disputes in the SCS has clear implications for Japan’s bilateral disagreement with China over sovereignty of territory in the ECS.

Duterte’s willingness to negotiate with China bilaterally over their territorial dispute weakens the otherwise united front that Japan, the US, and other stakeholders have in supporting international law to resolve disputes. Abe and his advisors will be sure to encourage Duterte to remain a supporter of dealing with territorial issues using international law.

More on this: Maverick from Mindanao: Will Duterte’s strongman style help or harm the Philippines?

Even more troublesome though is how a reorientation towards China (and potentially Russia) and a “separation” from the US impacts Abe’s security strategy in the ECS and SCS. Linking norms, trade and security, the Abe administration has attempted to forge a partnership with neighbours in the region through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in which partnering nations have agreed to a set of rules on how trade will be conducted between their countries. Based on shared trade norms prioritising the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR), the TPP deepens Japan’s and participating countries’ economic interests in the SCS and subsequently their interests in securitising this global public good. This strategy serves Japan well, not just in terms of its trade interests but also in terms of its rivalry with China, by linking Japan to more stakeholders in and outside the region.

Duterte’s pivot to China, if realised, would complicate Abe’s Southeast Asian strategy by inserting a wedge not just between Manila and Washington, but also between Manila and Tokyo, both of whom envision an Indo-Pacific region in which ASEAN countries and India act as integral partners with Tokyo and Washington in their efforts to ensure that China does not dominate the region.

The Philippines represents an important part of this strategy because of its military strategic position in the region, its longstanding friendly relations with both the US and Japan, and its numerous shared norms such as democratic institutions, respect for human rights and freedom of the press. Without the Philippines as a partner, this strategic engagement with ASEAN countries will be weakened. Other states within the region may turn away from the US and Japan as they feel the erosion of their existing security strategy, which presently attempts to enjoy the economic benefits of a relationship with China while simultaneously enjoying US security guarantees.

As a result, the Filipino president’s visit to Tokyo this week will be one of consequence. Abe will request a clarification of what Duterte meant in Beijing by “separation” and “the US has lost”. The Japanese Prime Minister will also attempt to explain how the Filipino President’s rhetoric about the US, China, and Russia affects Japan’s security in the region and, potentially, the longstanding warm relationship between the two countries. Crucially, Abe will attempt to clarify Duterte’s vision for Japan-Philippines relations when a reorientation towards China and away from the US would likely come at Japan’s expense.

Strategically, Duterte’s visit puts Tokyo in a difficult position. A harsh and condescending approach by Abe to Duterte may accelerate Manila’s reorientation to China. This would be a step backwards for Tokyo, especially as it has invested so much diplomatic effort in courting Southeast Asian nations. That being said, without clearly articulating Tokyo’s concerns, the Filipino President may make the false assumption that Tokyo is not concerned with Manila’s reorientation towards Beijing. Duterte should not underestimate Tokyo’s commitment to the US-Japan Alliance, and the fact that Japan’s growing rivalry with China is the central consideration in its negotiations with Manila.

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Nagy, Stephen R. 2016. "Duterte In Tokyo: An Unraveling Security Strategy - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.