Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held summit talks with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Oct. 26 during the president's visit to Japan. Duterte's three-day official visit has reminded the public that it is no easy task to grasp the true nature of the president, who has drawn worldwide attention for his abusive words and deeds.
The two leaders agreed to cooperate in pursuing a peaceful settlement to issues in the South China Sea. President Duterte told Abe that the Philippines is prepared to hold talks with China based only on an international arbitration tribunal ruling in July, which states there is no legal basis for Beijing's sweeping claims to historical rights in the South China Sea. Duterte agreed with Beijing to resume bilateral talks on the issues during his visit to China last week.
A joint statement issued by Abe and Duterte underscores the importance of self-restraint and demilitarization, with China's reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea in mind.
However, a joint statement released at the summit between Duterte and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping makes no mention of the international arbitration tribunal's ruling, giving rise to concerns that the ruling could be shelved.
In Japan, Duterte apparently showed consideration to Japan's position with his reference to the ruling. His remarks have certainly reassured Japan to a certain extent.
But avoiding mention of the ruling, which China has rejected as "waste paper," while he was in China and emphasizing in Japan that the Philippines will hold consultations with China based only on the ruling could invite distrust from both Tokyo and Beijing. Duterte should make it clear he attaches importance to rule by law.
The Philippine president's attitude toward the United States also drew particular attention alongside his position on the international arbitration tribunal's ruling. Close cooperation between Japan, the United States and the Philippines is the core of Japan's security policy in the South China Sea, and relations between the United States and the Philippines will have an impact on Japan.
The prime minister is said to have underscored the importance of the role that the United States plays in East Asia. Duterte's response to Abe's remarks has not been disclosed. In a lecture in Tokyo, however, Duterte urged the United States to pull its troops out of the Philippines, highlighting a wide perception gap on the issue between himself and Abe.
A press secretary to the president told reporters at the Japan National Press Club that President Duterte attaches importance to the dignity of his country. He apparently harbors ill feelings toward the United States, which continued its colonial rule of the Philippines until 70 years ago and which kept his country in a subordinate position.
Duterte's feelings are understandable, but blatantly demonstrating anti-U.S. sentiment is excessive. Japan should bridge the gap between the United States and the Philippines to prevent their dispute from developing into an emotional standoff.
At the same time, Duterte's countermeasures against illegal drugs cannot be overlooked. Although drug countermeasures are an important part of the Philippines' national policy, it is unworthy of a law-governed country to kill thousands of suspects without a trial.
Prime Minister Abe offered to help rehabilitate drug addicts in the Philippines without mentioning human rights issues. The prime minister apparently attempted to avoid a backlash from the president. However, such a response could raise suspicions in the international community about Japan's sensitivity to human rights. The prime minister should patiently continue his dialogue with Duterte to convey Japan's concerns about the Philippines' crackdowns on suspects in drug offenses.