Japan pursues diplomatic offensive in Philippines visit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 3:05am

A two-day visit by Japan's foreign minister to the Philippines appears to be part of a well-coordinated diplomatic offensive by Tokyo to strengthen ties with other Asian countries amid tensions with China.

Fumio Kishida's meetings yesterday with President Benigno Aquino and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, comes as both countries are engaged with separate maritime disputes with Beijing.

Kishida's mission to Manila follows a recent trip by Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso to Myanmar, a close economic partner of China, with pledges to waive debt and extend new loans. Kishida will also visit Singapore, Brunei and Australia.

Next week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make his first overseas trip since winning office to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Japan's top government spokesman said it was not aimed at counter-balancing China's influence in the region.

"China is an important country for Japan," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, stressing the strategic nature of Japan's bilateral ties with the world's second largest economy.

But Beijing may view such diplomatic overtures with suspicion, considering what emerged from Kishida's Manila meetings.

There were pledges for loans on a railway project that would extend Metro Manila's urban railway to outlying provinces and the construction of a new airport on the resort island of Bohol.

But Tokyo's offer of 10 patrol vessels and a communications system to boost the under-equipped Philippine coastguard is strategically, and politically, the most significant.

China and the Philippines have been engaged in a diplomatic row over rival claims to parts of the strategic and oil-rich South China Sea, almost all of which is claimed by China through its controversial nine-dash line.

Two of the hot spots are the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, which is known as Huangyan Island in China. Earlier this week, del Rosario said Manila asked Beijing to explain the recent deployment of Chinese patrol vessels to the region.

"We all understand the incursions being made by China in terms of the nine-dash line. For example, they do pose a threat to the stability of the region and we need to be able to address the possibility that freedom of navigation will be adversely impacted," del Rosario said yesterday.

Kishida, without mentioning China, said the Philippines and Japan needed to boost their ties to help ensure peace.

"As the strategic environment in the region is changing, it is necessary for us as foreign ministers to share recognition of the situation, enhance the strategic partnership and cooperate towards shaping a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region," he said.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse