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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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  • Disappeared4x

    Too many ‘norms’. Not enough beer. San Miguel Beer, Pale Pilsen + Kirin Lager versus Tsingtao Beer might be the proxy war we are waiting for..

  • Dhako

    Again, a wishful thinking is rearing its delusional head around this parish, it seems. In other words, the game in the Philippines was always between Uncle Sam (i.e., US) and the Middle Kingdom (i.e., PRC). And, Japan, was by all intent and purposes, a “glorified vassal-state” where the strategical equation of South East Asia is concern. And that is more so, given that, Japan, was not known to have any independent foreign policy vis-a-vis that of US in this region, as the Obama’s pivot, in which Mr Shinzo Abe have enthusiastically supported, will tell anyone as to where Japan’s foreign policy ends and where the US’s south-East-Asia policy begins.

    Moreover, the reason Duterte will treat Mr Abe’s Japan, as if he has no larger room-to-maneuver where the strategical equation of this region is concern, without the say so of Uncle Sam, is the same reason Mr Abe failed his monumental gamble of wooing a certain chap by the name of Putin, when Mr Abe tried to sweet talk his way (with much finance intended to oil the transaction) to a “mutual understanding” with Putin, where the Kurils islands are concern.

    Hence, as much as Putin knew, that Mr Abe is a respectable version of a “retained woman” (in a strategical sense) who is beholden to the dictates of Uncle Sam, Mr Duterte is also aware that Mr Abe is not in the same league of influence as Uncle Sam is, or even could do much to China, if China, on the other hand took a decidedly antagonistic position towards the Philippines.

    Consequently, any cash in which Mr Abe dangles before Duterte’s Philippines will be greatly welcomed in Manila. But, the strategical direction (or the direction of the travel) in so far as Philippines are concern, is quite clear. And, it’s essentially that of mutually-growing coming together between Duterte’s Philippines and China.

    And, of course, in the mean-time, the likes of Japan will not be told not to bring their check book to Manila, every time they feel the Chinese dragon is getting too overbearingly for Japan, even, if at the end of the day, they will not be able to “purchase” any “strategical realignment” between Japan and the Philippines at the expense of China, no matter how much Yen Mr Abe doles out during his incessant travels into Manila.

    • Genesis123

      You seem to be really full of pride for China. Do you know what pride usually comes before?

  • Doesn’t Duterte also value his country’s ties with the Japanese?

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