MANILA/DAVAO, Philippines The recent summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had a friendly tone and yielded extensive agreements, though the two leaders never quite managed to find common ground on the hot-button issue of China.
At their Jan. 12 talks in Manila, they agreed to, among other things, stronger maritime security cooperation and a 1 trillion yen ($8.69 billion) aid package from Tokyo. The diplomatic courtship continued the following day, with Abe meeting Duterte in the southern city of Davao. Abe's decision to meet on the Philippine leader's home turf -- Duterte is the former mayor of Davao -- was aimed at building trust and keeping the Philippines close, as China wields stronger influence over the region.
In a roughly 30-minute conversation at a Davao hotel, the two leaders touched on the role of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region.
Duterte, who has sought to distance the Philippines from the U.S. and famously insulted outgoing President Barack Obama, told Abe that he would continue to cooperate with Washington, according to sources.
Abe stressed that U.S. commitments are indispensable for maintaining regional peace and prosperity.
Given the uncertainty over U.S. President Donald Trump's Asia policy, Abe is looking to preserve as much continuity as possible. That means ensuring the Philippines will continue to work with Japan on both the security and economic fronts.
On the subject of the South China Sea, Duterte acknowledged the growing presence of China and said he would like to see the disputes peacefully resolved based on international law, according to sources. He also expressed his intention to pursue direct dialogue with the Chinese leadership on the matter.
Abe is the first foreign leader to visit the country since Duterte took office last June.
SHORING UP TIES At their Jan. 12 summit, Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with about 1 trillion yen in official development assistance and private-sector investment, including for building infrastructure, over the next five years.
"We will offer support in boosting the Philippines' maritime capabilities, such as by providing patrol ships and by training personnel," a Japanese official quoted Abe as saying during the roughly 40-minute meeting.
Abe said that by partnering with the Philippines, he hoped to reach a "swift, high-quality agreement" on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal. "Japan [also] will continue to work toward placing the Trans-Pacific Partnership into effect," he added.
The prime minister wants to reaffirm Japan's partnerships in the region to discourage China from a further military buildup in the South China Sea, and also to keep tensions from spreading into the East China Sea, where Tokyo has its own disputes with Beijing.
Yet Japan and the Philippines are not quite on the same page in handling Beijing's advances. On Jan. 12, when Abe talked about his plans for discussing the matter at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Duterte responded that he supported Japan in various areas but did not explicitly reference the South China Sea, a Japanese official said.
The Philippines and Japan "have a shared interest in keeping our waters safe and secure from threats of any kind," Duterte told a joint news conference after that meeting. He also promised to continue efforts to advance the rule of law. But while neighbors such as Indonesia and Vietnam firmly oppose China's maritime moves, the Philippines has wavered under Duterte, who is shying away from the disputes in an apparent attempt to extract economic assistance from both China and Japan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping promised $24 billion in economic assistance during last October's summit with Duterte.