April 19, 2017 2:00 am JST

Duterte seeking diplomatic balance between Japan, China

Philippine leader plans June trip to Tokyo

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is visiting Japan in June.

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will visit Japan in June for the second time since taking office, aiming to build rapport with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and strike a delicate balance between competing Japanese and Chinese interests.

Duterte is speaking at the 23rd International Conference on the Future of Asia, hosted by Nikkei Inc., on June 5 and 6 in Tokyo. His last trip to Japan was in October.

Abe went to the Philippines in January, where he announced a public-private economic aid package worth 1 trillion yen ($9.2 billion at current rates). Duterte invited the prime minister to his home in the southern city of Davao for breakfast in a show of friendship.

Abe will visit the Philippines again in November to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings. "Duterte had been considering the possibility of going to Japan in the middle of the year" in between Abe's two trips, said a diplomatic source. The frequent exchanges are intended to demonstrate the closeness of the two leaders.

China also factors into their considerations. Although the Philippines and China are locked in a bitter maritime dispute in the South China Sea, Duterte has worked to improve ties. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October before his trip to Japan. He will return to the city next month to attend a forum on China's Belt and Road initiative and to speak with Xi.

Concerned with China's maritime expansion, Japan seeks to keep Duterte from getting too close to China. The Philippines appears to have taken such concerns into consideration by scheduling Duterte's Japan trip shortly after the Belt and Road forum.

Both Japan and China have promised economic assistance in hopes of boosting their influence in the Philippines. Duterte could push the two countries to lay out the details of their plans and follow through at the coming summits.

The Philippines is likely to face challenges in balancing Japanese and Chinese interests in the coming weeks. Duterte could also be caught between Vietnam, a staunch opponent of Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and pro-Beijing Cambodia at an ASEAN summit later this month.

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