Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte’s Pivot Puts Japan in Spotlight

In Japan this week, Rodrigo Duterte doubled down on promises to cut military ties with the United States and proposed a two-year time frame for all foreign troops to leave the Philippines. While these comments are clearly bad news for the United States, they also placed Duterte’s host country, Japan, in a difficult position. The New York Times explains:

For Japan, which recently offered two additional coast guard ships to help the Philippines protect its interests in the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte’s stance could be troubling if it results in China gaining more maritime power in the region.

Japan also does not want any precedent set in its own disputes with China over a chain of islands in the East China Sea where both China and Japan claim territorial rights, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

“Japan has invested for some time in the political and military sphere in Southeast Asia basically as part of its China containment policy,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “I think they are hoping, like everyone else, that Southeast Asia will be on their side against” China, he added. “So prima facie this is bad, because he switched sides,” he said, speaking of Mr. Duterte.

Japan’s response to the Philippines is one to watch. Although much of the coverage surrounding Duterte’s pivot has concerned its effect on the U.S. and China, the broader regional dynamic is crucial as well. The Philippines’ course change will send ripple effects throughout the Asia-Pacific, and Japan’s reaction could set the tone.

Ideally, Tokyo could act as a kind of mediator between Washington and Manila. Japanese and American interests largely align, but as a regional Asian power with its own China problem, Japan has more credibility with Duterte than the United States. Given Duterte’s distrust of Washington and his outrage at American human rights criticism, Tokyo might be better placed to make the case for checking China’s rise.

The initial readout from the Japan trip suggests some common ground. At a joint appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Duterte promised to “uphold the shared values of democracy and adherence to the rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes, including the South China Sea.” He was also keen to stress that his visit to China concerned economic, and not military, cooperation. This was unusually diplomatic and reassuring language for Duterte, indicating that he does not want to burn any bridges with Japan.

But reassuring words will hardly be enough: Tokyo will want tangible commitments that the Philippines’ pivot will not endanger Japanese security interests or empower China. The re-balancing of Asia is just beginning—but not along the lines that Washington expected.

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