Rodrigo Duterte

Abe and Duterte united on South China Sea disputes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 6:45pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte affirmed Wednesday their cooperation in resolving the territorial disputes in the South China Sea peacefully and in accordance with international law, a week after China and the Philippines agreed to set aside the contentious issue to promote bilateral relations.

The two leaders indicated they remain on the same page over addressing China’s military expansion at sea, despite Duterte’s overtures during his visit to China last week suggesting he wishes to align more closely with Beijing.

Watch: Philippine’s Duterte in high-profile visit to Japan

“The Philippines will continue to work closely with Japan on issues of common concern in the region and uphold the shared values of democracy, adherence to the rule of law and the peaceful settlement of disputes, including in the South China Sea,” Duterte told a joint press conference following the meeting in Tokyo.

Abe said the leaders confirmed the importance of resolving maritime disputes in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international law without resorting to the threat or use of force.

An international arbitration tribunal ruling in July found no legal basis for China’s sweeping claims to historical rights in the South China Sea. The Philippines, one of several Southeast Asian contesters in the territorial row with China, brought the case before Duterte took office.

Japan has called for the countries involved to comply with the ruling, signalling its concern at China’s expansionary activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

In opening remarks at the leaders’ meeting, Duterte told Abe the Philippines is currently “limited” by the terms of the tribunal’s ruling in terms of how it can address the South China Sea issue.

Things have changed, but the Philippines would like to reconnect with Japan, and to assure you that we remain your true and loyal partner
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte appeared to seek to allay any concerns that his expressions of closeness to Beijing could upset relations between Japan and the Philippines.

“Things have changed, but the Philippines would like to reconnect with Japan, and to assure you that we remain your true and loyal partner,” Duterte told Abe at the outset of the meeting.

“I have visited other countries ... all of these were [to do with the] economy or trade, and had nothing to do with alliances, military or otherwise,” he said, apparently referring to his recent visit to China.

“Japan welcomes [Duterte’s] visit to China and his efforts to improve and develop the relationship between the Philippines and China,” Abe said at the press conference.

Neither Abe nor Duterte directly addressed his recent comments expressing hostility to the United States, with which the Philippines has a mutual defence treaty.

Duterte had announced in Beijing last Thursday Manila’s military and economic “separation” from Washington, suggesting the Philippines would be better off aligning itself with China than the United States.

The Philippine leader told a business forum in Tokyo earlier Wednesday that he wants all US troops out of the Philippines within the next two years.

Abe and Duterte backed statements of bilateral unity in maritime security with measures aimed at enhancing the Philippines’ capacity to keep its sea territory secure.

The countries signed an agreement for Japan to provide two large patrol ships for Philippine coast guard activities, financed through yen loans – something Abe pledged when the leaders met in Laos last month. Japan has already delivered the first of 10 smaller patrol craft it offered earlier.

Duterte won’t sacrifice Philippines’ interests to build ties with Japan, says Chinese state media

Japan and the Philippines also signed an agreement leasing TC-90 training aircraft from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force to the Philippines for use in maritime patrols.

Japan was the Philippines’ top export destination in 2015, and the top donor of official development assistance between 1960 and 2014, according to the Japanese government.

Following the leaders’ meeting, Japan pledged 4.93 billion yen (US$47.3 million) in yen loans for agricultural business promotion and peace-building on the island of Mindanao, where Duterte served as the long-time mayor of the city of Davao.

But these offerings are dwarfed by China’s pledge of billions of dollar deals with the Philippines during Duterte’s four-day trip to China.

The Philippines and China agreed in a joint statement issued following Duterte’s talks with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (習近平) to exercise self-restraint in the South China Sea and hold regular bilateral dialogue on maritime issues.

While Japan does not directly face the South China Sea, the issue of maritime sovereignty is pertinent to its concerns over Beijing’s territorial claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

The leaders made no mention of Duterte’s antidrug drive that has prompted concerns from Washington about human rights violations in the Philippines.

Duterte, who arrived in Tokyo on Tuesday, is scheduled to meet Emperor Akihito on Thursday before concluding his three-day trip.