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Duterte exposes his 'opportunistic' attitude in meeting with Abe

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, shares a toast with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 2016. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte confirmed their commitment on Oct. 26 to strengthening bilateral ties and prioritizing the rule of law in the South China Sea -- an amicable move that clearly showed Duterte, who had been seen as pro-China, to be an opportunist.

To vie with China, which is trying to bring the Philippines into its orbit, Japan is keen to revive its ties with Manila. But it remains to be seen what steps the Philippines will take and what its real intentions are as it moves to improve ties with both Japan and China.

In his meeting with Abe, Duterte said that his government would hold talks with China based only on an international arbitration tribunal ruling in July that said there is no legal basis for Beijing's sweeping claims to historical rights in the South China Sea. He made the statement only six days after he agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping to shelve the tribunal ruling and resume bilateral talks. But when in Japan, Duterte suggested he considers the tribunal important. However, his undiminished anti-U.S. rhetoric is inconsistent with Japan's U.S.-centered security policy. What are Duterte's true intentions?

On Manila's China policy, Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said at an Oct. 26 news conference that his country would set aside the South China Sea dispute and hold bilateral talks, when the time came, to explore ways to resolve the disagreement. Based on his explanation, although Beijing and Manila are shelving the dispute over the arbitration tribunal, one cannot deny the possibility that Duterte paid "lip service" to Japan to demonstrate his country's dedication to its partnership with Japan, which is the Philippines' biggest trading partner and investor. Nonetheless, concerns remain that Duterte will switch his stance and again move closer to China.

It is difficult to grasp Duterte's true intentions, but what is clear is that he has deep anti-U.S sentiment. At an economic forum in Tokyo on the afternoon of Oct. 26, Duterte suggested that his country could review the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which has made it possible for Washington either to withdraw its troops from the Philippines or to re-establish a full-fledged U.S. military presence in the country. He declared, "I want, maybe in the next two years, my country free of the presence of foreign military troops. I want them out." He went on to say, "And if I have to revise or abrogate agreements, executive agreements, this shall be the last maneuver, war games between the United States and the Philippines military."

Under Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino, the Philippines joined hands with Japan and the U.S. to try and "contain" China. But since Duterte took office, relations between Manila and Washington have chilled. Duterte emphasizes that he is pro-Japan, but if relations between Manila and Washington are shaken, Japan's maritime security policy will not work out, threatening to undermine the Asia-Pacific security structure.

Southeast Asian countries are carefully watching developments, including what steps Japan is to take in the future. Sujit Dutta, professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, a public university in Delhi, said that Duterte would continue to distance himself from the U.S. However, Japan, which does not have hostile relations with the Philippines, would be an important factor in Manila's policies. He also said that if the government of Prime Minister Abe were to strengthen strategic relations with the Philippines, Japan would be able to retain a certain degree of influence in Manila. (By Atsushi Iwasa, Foreign News Department, Shinichi Nishiwaki, Bangkok Bureau, and Jun Kaneko, New Delhi Bureau)

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