In Duterte territory, Abe stresses America's regional role
Philippine leader tells Japanese counterpart he will work with US
YUTA UEBAYASHI and JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writers
MANILA/DAVAO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued their diplomatic courtship on Friday, a day after agreeing to stronger maritime security cooperation alongside a 1 trillion yen ($8.76 billion) aid package from Tokyo.
Seeking to build trust and keep the Philippines close, as China wields stronger influence over the region, Abe met with Duterte on his home turf -- the city of Davao. The previous day's summit was held in Manila.
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-elect 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.
Reiterating remarks from the previous day, Abe said he would emphasize the importance of the rule of law in resolving the territorial issues at this year's Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings, in cooperation with the Philippines, the current ASEAN chair.
Abe is Duterte's first official guest as president. Japan's Foreign Ministry said Abe is also the first foreign leader to visit Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao. It was there that Duterte built his strongman reputation as mayor, before running for president.
Prior to the meeting at the hotel, Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, joined Duterte at his home for breakfast. Later, the leaders were to attend a ceremony where Abe would name a Philippine eagle "Sakura," or cherry blossom, as a symbol of friendship between the nations. The Philippine eagle is the country's national bird.
Shoring up ties
At their summit on Thursday, Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with about 1 trillion yen in official development assistance and private-sector investments, including for building infrastructure, over the next five years. The countries will form a panel staffed by officials from both nations to manage these investments.
"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 in Manila.
The prime minister also promised to help build rehabilitation facilities and offer other support for Duterte's anti-drug campaign, as well as promote economic development in Mindanao.
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.
Friendly but removed
Overall, Abe's visit has yielded extensive agreements and a friendly tone. A Japanese official said Duterte apparently left up Christmas decorations in the presidential Malacanang Palace as a welcome.
"This is the very first official visit to the Philippines of a head of government under this administration," Duterte said at the opening of the summit. No other foreign leader has been invited to the country since Duterte took office last June.
"I chose the Philippines as my first destination this year, and that is a testament to my primary emphasis on our bilateral relationship," Abe said in response.
Abe begins the year with a trip to the Philippines, followed by Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia, amid doubts over whether Trump will be as involved in the Asia-Pacific region as Obama.
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 Thursday, when Abe talked about his plans for discussing the matter at the ASEAN meetings, 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. The president 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 an October summit with Duterte. The Philippine leader said on Thursday that his country will pursue even greater economic partnerships.