Thinking Beyond Politics

President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s state visit to Beijing in mid-October 2016 caused several analysts and observers to conclude that the Philippines had parted from its traditional treaty ally, the United States, and had pivoted to its main protagonist in the South China Sea dispute, China. A few days later after his visit to Beijing, however, President Duterte visited Tokyo.

By visiting Beijing and then Tokyo in a matter of days, President Duterte is following his former President Benigno Aquino’s footsteps on taking advantage of the rivalry between these regional powers.

Confronted by an expansionist China in the South China Sea, then President Aquino fostered a security partnership with Japan. Both Philippine presidents took into account Japan’s counter-balancing behavior to China’s emergence, which is rooted both in Japanese perception of aggressive Chinese behavior and the changing balance of military power in East Asia to China’s favor.

A few weeks before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, President Duterte went on a three-day working visit to Tokyo. After his meeting with PM Abe, President Duterte went back to Manila with pledges that includes $140 million for a water management project in the province of Cavite, and another $880 million for the construction of the Philippines’ first subway system in Manila. The Japanese Foreign Ministry also announced that Japan is also providing more patrol and speed boats for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and financing training programs to enhance the PCG’s maritime capabilities. Interestingly, while in Japan, President Duterte made no reference to China suggesting that he is playing Beijing off against Tokyo to earn the highest bid from any of the two feuding regional powers.

In September 2017, PM Abe met President Duterte in Laos for their first summit meeting.

During their talks, both leaders reached an agreement in a wide range of matters such as strengthening cooperation on boosting maritime security through Japanese provision of two large patrol vessels to the Philippines.

In January 2017, PM Abe went on a two-day state visit to Manila as the Philippines became closer to China while taking a hostile posture towards the two countries’ common security partner — the US. PM Abe’s visit to the Philippines was his first stop in a four-nation diplomatic swing as he pressed his efforts to boost Japan’s trade and security engagements amidst China’s increasing economic and diplomatic clout in Southeast Asia. The two leaders also discussed defense matters as they pledged to deepen maritime security cooperation between their two countries. PM Abe emphasized that since both the Philippines and Japan are maritime nations, Japan will support the Philippines’ capacity-building in the field of maritime security.

For his part, President Duterte expressed hope for the fast-track delivery to the Philippines of patrol vessels already in the pipeline and the acquisition of new boats. Both leaders also reaffirm their commitments to pursue a peaceful resolution to the long-standing South China Sea dispute. Commenting on the high-profile visit by a Japanese head of government to the Philippines, an American analyst observed that PM Abe’s Jan. 12-13 visit to the Philippines reflected “Japan’s goal to upset growing Chinese influence in the geopolitically strategic Southeast Asian country by ensuring the steady flow of (Japanese) aid and investment to the Philippines.”

Along with PM Abe’s pledges of more grants and investment, the lease of the TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft to the Philippine Navy (PN) was part of Tokyo’s efforts in assisting the Philippines economically and militarily to counter China’s growing influence on the Duterte administration. Japan’s transfer of these reconnaissance planes to the PN showed that maritime security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines is developing smoothly despite the Sino-Philippine entente. This also suggests that the Philippines under the Duterte administration considers Japan as a balancer between the United States and China in its diplomatic strategy which is aimed at the Philippines’ diversification of foreign relations, including the relationships with Japan, Australia, China, and even Russia.

On Feb. 10, the Philippines and Japan held their fifth annual defense dialogue in Tokyo.

During the talks, the Philippines raised the need for the countries to conclude a visiting forces agreement in order to pave way for the conduct of military exercises between the two security partners. The prospect of a visiting forces agreement between Japan and the Philippines was first raised during then President Aquino’s state visit in Japan in June 2015.

On March 28, the first two former Japan Military Self Defense Force (JMSDF) Beechcraft King Air TC-90 reconnaissance planes were formally transferred to the PN. The donated aircraft augmented the PN’s six 40-year-old Britten-Norman Islanders that are used in maritime patrol, surveillance and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and rapid assessment missions.

On June 5, the JS Izumo and the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Takanami-class destroyer JS Sazanami visited the Philippines for a four-day goodwill visit. The JS Izumo’s port visit to the Philippines was politically significant because of President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to gravitate close to China, Japan’s main rival in East Asia. President Duterte boarded the ship and being the first head of state to set foot on the ship, he was accorded with military honors and was warmly received by Japanese officials and naval officers. Interestingly, the visit occurred at the time when the Duterte administration has actively pursued an appeasement policy on China.

The JS Izumo’s visit reminded President Duterte that Japan still matters in the regional security equation. It impressed upon him that Japan is not just a reliable and capable partner of ASEAN in enhancing maritime security on the basis of the rule of law but is also a pro-active player that can provide security assistance and deploy its warships in Southeast Asian waters. The ship visit also conveyed a message to China. In the light of the Sino-Philippine entente, China should not discount the fact that the Philippine-Japan security partnership is still very much intact.

In August 2017, Japan announced that it will give the Philippines thousands of helicopter spare parts to keep the PAF fleet of UH-1 Iroquois (or Huey) Helicopters operational. The Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) retired its older H version of the Vietnam War-era Huey Helicopters in 2012, but kept its spare parts. The spare parts that would be given to the Philippines are meant for the PAF’s workhorse UH-1 Huey helicopters that are still used for transport and gunships in the Philippine military’s counter-insurgency operations. This deal could be the first of a series of agreements that Tokyo aims to forge with some Southeast Asian states that are willing to accept second-hand Japanese patrol aircraft, ships, and other military equipment. This is part of the Japan’s military diplomacy that is aimed to confound China’s growing political and economic influence in Southeast Asia.

President Duterte has not changed the Aquino administration’s national security objective as he continued its efforts to modernize the Philippine military. He returned the function of internal security back to the Philippine military as it pursues its goal of achieving a credible defense posture. The Duterte administration does not intend to change the national security objectives and even the military’s previous efforts to modernize. It is merely reorienting the defense department’s and the AFP’s key missions to its goal of first addressing domestic security concerns before focusing on territorial defense. The Duterte administration’s defense policy, however doesn’t factor in any American security assistance nor guarantee in the face of China’s maritime expansion. This stems from its foreign policy goal of unravelling the Aquino administration’s agenda of balancing China in the South China Sea.

Consequently, President Duterte distances the Philippines from the US; while moving closer to China which is bent on effecting a territorial revision in the East Asia. This, however, makes him more amenable to closer and more intense security partnerships with other countries such as Japan, Australia, China, and Russia.

Japan, on the other hand, found it urgent to enhance its security partnership with the Philippines because it does not want the Duterte administration to gravitate closer to China. Consequently, it has continued providing military equipment, training, and logistic support to the Philippines. However, Japan’s security partnership with the Philippines is constrained by two policies: First, Japan will never extend any security guarantee to the Philippines. Second, it will only provide military equipment that are geared for maritime surveillance and transport to the Philippines. It will never provide any combat hardware to the Philippines.

Clearly, Japan has no intention to replace the US as the Philippines’ sole formal treaty ally. It still values its alliance with the US and vigorously supports its ally’s role as the indispensable strategic off-shore balancer in the Asia-Pacific region.


Renato Cruz De Castro is a Trustee of Stratbase ADR Institute.