Asia's Game of Thrones
As Duterte Bows to China, Can Japan Make Inroads?

Rodrigo Duterte’s outreach to China continues to be strikingly deferential, with the Philippine president now promising to delay upgrades to his country’s dilapidated outposts in the South China Sea. Reuters:

The decision to defer upgrades was to avoid “any aggressive action in the West Philippine Sea,” Military chief General Eduardo Ano told a news conference at an army base, using the name by which the Philippines refers to the South China Sea.

He said the move aimed to preserve a new era of friendlier relations with China under President Rodrigo Duterte, who decided to engage Beijing, rather than confront it in the wake of a arbitral award it bitterly opposed.

Duterte says he is in no hurry to discuss that ruling and will do so only when China is ready.

Three months after his surprise pivot, Duterte is still taking great pains to avoid antagonizing Beijing. The Philippines have enjoyed some payoff from that decision: $13.5 billion in bilateral trade deals, $9 billion in low-interest infrastructure loans, and the restoration of fishermen’s access to Scarborough Shoal are a few of the bones that Beijing has tossed Duterte’s way for publicly kowtowing. Although the relationship has not been entirely smoothed over, Duterte nevertheless seems committed to embracing China and granting them significant leeway.

One consequence of that decision has been stepped-up diplomacy from Japan. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is visiting the Philippines this week to prove that Japan is as important a partner as China:

In his second meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in less than three months, Mr. Abe offered more than $8.7 billion in Japanese investment to the Philippines, a grant of more than $5 million for high-speed boats to boost the Philippines’ maritime security, and a host of other cooperation agreements on issues from infrastructure to the rehabilitation of drug offenders. […]

Mr. Abe “will try to convince Duterte to go slow on his relationship with China,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a security analyst and academic in Manila. “Without question Japan has emerged as the fulcrum state in the past few months as the Philippines quite radically is recalibrating its foreign policy.”

Japan could play a key role in tempering the Philippine pivot to China; as we noted in November, the U.S. may hope to use Japan as a go-between with Duterte at a time when his relations with Washington are strained. And Duterte, for his part, may calculate that he can play the two powers off each other, cozying up to Beijing to extract more favorable treatment from Tokyo. Such a bet would hardly be unprecedented in a complicated security environment where omnidirectional balancing is the norm, but it will certainly have repercussions as Japan and China compete for influence in a rapidly changing Asia.

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