By Perry Diaz
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to the Philippines on January 12-13, 2017, came at a crucial moment in Philippine Rodrigo Duterte’s quest for a place on the table of world politics. Last November, Duterte declared his “separation” from the U.S. in front of his Chinese hosts in Beijing. Then a week later, on his way to Lima, Peru to attend the annual summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, he issued a statement saying, “If China and Russia would decide to create a new order, I would be the first to join.” He added that he’d quit the United Nations. Indeed, with an “alliance” that consists of China, Russia, and the Philippines, who needs the United Nations?
When Duterte finally met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Lima, Duterte ranted a litany of gripes against the United States, to which Putin replied that he shared Duterte’s sentiments about the United States and other Western countries. “Our assessments coincide in many respects,” Putin said. Putin promised to sell Duterte weapons at half price including missiles and submarines. Wow! What a deal!
When Putin sent a Russian warship on a goodwill visit to Manila, Duterte visited the warship and told the ship’s captain that he hoped Russia would become his country’s ally and “protector.”
Meanwhile, details are being worked out for Duterte’s visit to Moscow in April. It was reported in the news that Duterte and Putin will sign a Russia-Philippines military agreement during his visit.
Alliance with China
And not to be outdone by Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered to give – free! — $14 million worth of weapons plus $500 million low-interest loan that Duterte repays at his own time. All Duterte had to do is send someone to pick up the arms which are ready for shipment.
With all the anticipation of Duterte’s blossoming military alliance with China and Russia, one wonders how would he use such alliance to defend the Philippines from invaders? And who would these invaders be? U.S.? Japan? South Korea? Vietnam? Right now, the only conceivable country that would invade the Philippines is China. Russia doesn’t have any core interests in the South China Sea that would give her any reason to attack the Philippines.
With China getting more assertive with her claim of ownership of virtually the entire South China Sea and by building artificial islands on reefs and atolls in the Spratly archipelago — and militarizing them — China is in a position to invade the Philippines. However, a Chinese invasion could be averted if the Philippine government invoked the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). But if the Philippines were governed by a president – Duterte — who is beholden to China and wouldn’t invoke the MDT, then China would be in a position to take over the country… without firing a shot.
Abe’s visit changed all that. With Abe and Duterte signing various memoranda of agreement on economic and defense assistance including agriculture, transportation, small and medium enterprise, infrastructure, counter-terrorism, drug-rehabilitation projects, and security cooperation, it begs the question: Are these “goodies” enough to entice Duterte into taking a detour from his misadventure into the Sino-Russo orbit? The answer is no. So there must be something more promising than what the public is aware of.
It’s interesting to note that Abe included in his Philippine itinerary a visit to Duterte’s home in Davao City, which is extraordinarily unusual. But the significance of his visit to Duterte’s residence could be to privately discuss sensitive geopolitical issues that involve their countries in a changing world dynamics, particularly security issues and alliances. Perhaps, a “golden opportunity” has been discussed for which both countries could benefit from. Hmm… My crystal ball is showing a blurred image of what could be the Yamashita Gold. Have they finally found it? Eureka!
On a more serious note, Abe’s ulterior motive might have been to sway Duterte away from the Sino-Russo axis and bring him back into the fold of the U.S. and her Asian-Pacific treaty allies that includes Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
While the Philippines has been a treaty ally of the U.S. since 1951 when the MDT was signed, Duterte has been distancing the Philippines away from the U.S. and seeking defense alliance with China and Russia. Thus far, with the U.S. doing nothing to mend her differences with Duterte, it would seem that Duterte is just waiting for the right moment to declare a revolutionary government allied with China and Russia.
But Duterte seems to be playing a dangerous geopolitical game by courting Japan while he is kowtowing to Xi Jinping. Right after his China state visit, Duterte visited Japan. Abe welcomed him warmly and offered economic and military assistance including $300 million in loans for patrol boats.
Abe’s reciprocal visit to the Philippines changed Duterte’s attitude towards the U.S. During their meeting, Abe reportedly told Duterte that Japan would offer security and economic support for the Philippines. However, he emphasized the significance of enhancing cooperation between Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines, to which Duterte acknowledged the importance of the Philippines’ alliance with the U.S. He also assured Abe that he did not enter into a military alliance with China and that he would insist on the rule of law in the South China Sea. Abe agreed that the role of the U.S. remains vital for stability in the region and that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved under the rule of law.
Clearly, Duterte’s stance was a 180-degree turnaround from his previous position of “separation” from the U.S., abrogation of the defense agreements with the U.S., and military alliance with China and Russia.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. also assured Abe, saying: “In one of the significant things I heard from the prime minister’s visit, he pointed out that the strong relationship and friendship between Japan and the Philippines will also open the door for us to engage in other areas of joint cooperation. These include how to deal with the United States and let them understand the geopolitical situation and realities on the ground,” he added.
Is a new “alliance” in the offing?