I give you my word today that we will not abandon Japan in our partnership and security matters given the common belief that our conflicts and problems with other nations must be resolved peacefully, in accordance with international law. … we would also be a partner and a player of maritime safety, maritime security anytime and that we would like to avoid at all costs violence because we have to resolve it peacefully and in accordance with international law.
– President Rodrigo Duterte after Oct. 26 meeting with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe
TALK about role reversal. After meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on October 26, visiting President Rodrigo Duterte assured his host that “we will not abandon Japan” which he called “special friend closer than a brother.”
Ponder again those words from the leader of the Philippines, conquered by the Empire of Japan nearly 75 years ago, and now one of the biggest beneficiaries of Japanese trade, aid and investment.
Why on earth must Duterte tell Japan — our biggest aid donor — that the Philippines would not forsake it, as if it depended on us for some crucial need?
Well, in fact, Japan did need President Duterte’s assurance of continued Philippine support, if not alliance.
Here’s why: During his state visit to China the week before going to Tokyo, Duterte announced “separation” from the United States and “alliance” with China and maybe Russia “against the world.”
Imagine China and the Philippines joining forces in the waters between them, through which most of Japan’s oil imports pass, and you see why PM Abe needed to be assured that such a naval nightmare isn’t the kind of alliance Duterte had in mind.
Tokyo got that assurance in the joint statement issued by Duterte and Abe after their meeting. Eight of the 15 points in the communique touched on maritime security issues, with repeated references to cooperation between Japan and the Philippines.
Along with words came action: The Philippines is getting two large patrol boats and ten other patrol vessels from Japan, along with two marine surveillance planes, and training for the Philippine Navy’s pilots and enhancing its infrastructure. Duterte also expressed appreciation for Tokyo’s plan to provide high-speed boats for anti-terrorism activities.
The day after his meeting with Abe, Duterte said he was amenable to joint patrols with Japanese naval vessels in Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea. Weeks before, he stopped joint patrols with the US Navy.
So is Duterte moving to a closer relationship, even an alliance, with Japan? Let’s take a close look at three strategic factors.
Japan needs a strong Philippines
First, Japan needs a strong, independent Philippines for regional security, especially on the high seas. Otherwise, we can easily be taken over by a big power hostile to Japan.
That would threaten vital sea lanes and fishing waters in the South and East China Seas and the Western Pacific. It would also complicate the deployment of US forces from Guam, Hawaii, Australia, and the Indian Ocean, to defend Japan.
So Tokyo has every reason to build up Philippine defense capabilities, especially air and naval power needed to counter foreign pressure and aggression, and ensure freedom of navigation in surrounding waters.
Won’t that provoke China in the same way that the US-Philippines alliance did?
Maybe not. Despite historical animosities with China, Japan is not a rival superpower, and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), dwarfed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and with no nuclear weapons, does not pose a strategic threat.
Moreover, due to restrictions in Japan’s peace constitution, the JSDF cannot deploy massive forces in the Philippines, as the US Seventh Fleet would under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Since it cannot garrison the Philippines, so to speak, Japan needs to build up our own defense capabilities if we are to resist aggression, especially the anti-access/area denial weaponry urged by security experts.
By contrast, the US preferred to escalate its naval and air assets in Philippine territory and bases, with little urgency in providing and developing the A2/AD gear we need, like the marine surveillance planes now coming from Japan.
The Philippines can secure Japanese shipping
Even before the Philippines can attain ample defense capabilities, it can already help secure Japanese shipping even now, by providing an alternative route skirting the South China Sea and going through the country’s archipelagic waters.
From the Malacca Strait and Singapore, ships bound for Japan can sail into the Sulu Sea, traverse the Visayas, and exit to the Pacific Ocean, where they can be secured by the US and Japanese navies operating out of Guam and Japan.
To enable this alternative route via the Philippine territorial sea, internationally recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Japan can help enhance port and marine support facilities along the way, so as to accommodate huge ocean-going vessels. At present, most Philippine ports are for domestic shipping only.
The Japan-Philippines economic synergy
The third strategic factor underpinningn deeper Japan-Philippines relations is economic synergy between ageing, worker-deficient Japan and populous, young Philippines.
This symbiosis is partly seen in the influx of nurses and caregivers into Japan, along with growing ranks of Filipino workers in various fields. This trend will become more and more crucial as Japan’s population gets even older, and its industries and its farms find it harder and harder to get workers. Not to mention willing hands for menial tasks.
In addition, Japanese industries should find the Philippines a welcome alternative to Malaysia, Thailand, and China, where labor is getting most expensive and harder to get. In addition, plants in the country would be much closer to certain markets like the US, Australia, and Japan itself. And Filipinos can also address Japan’s fast-rising demand for IT staff.
Add to the people factor the longstanding bounties of Philippine agriculture, fishing, and resources, and the economic synergy further strengthens Japan-Philippine ties.
Yes, in our security and our economies, we can indeed become closer than brothers.