One of the most underappreciated aspects of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy has been his facilitation of a golden age in bilateral relations with Japan. This strategic approach was on full display during the Filipino president’s latest visit to Tokyo, the third in less than three years, which revealed the deep strategic ties that bind the two nations.

Accompanied by as many as 200 officials, including a large chunk of his cabinet, Duterte secured $6 billion in investment pledges during his visit to Tokyo, where he was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia. Japanese investments in the Philippines are expected to generate 21,000 .

Japan also pledged $29.5 million to facilitate peace and developments projects in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao. Most crucially, however, the two sides discussed the South China Sea disputes and shared maritime security concerns. The rise of China and its disruptive impact on the regional order has pushed the two U.S. allies closer to each other than ever.

Further perturbed by uncertainties over the future of U.S. policy in the region, the administration of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is proactively contributing to a “free and open” regional order by not only expanding trade and investment relations with the Philippines, but also aiding its maritime security capabilities vis-à-vis an expansionist China.

The Art of Personal Diplomacy

The rapid expansion in bilateral cooperation has both personal as well as structural roots. On one hand, it reflects Duterte’s long decades of friendly relations with Japanese diplomats and businessmen in his hometown of Davao, the economic hub of the southern Philippines. In Duterte’s words, “Japan is a friend closer than a brother. That means Japan is a friend unlike any other.”

Abe has assiduously pursued warmer ties with the Philippines over the last decade. The Japanese leader was the first foreign dignitary to visit the Southeast Asian country under Duterte. Abe and his wife even visited Duterte’s home in Davao. The high-profile visit was particularly crucial since it came at the height of Duterte’s diplomatic isolation due to his scorched earth drug war.

A senior Japanese diplomat told the author at that time that Abe proactively sought to bridge differences that had emerged during the Obama administration between Washington and Manila over human rights issues. During his extensive discussions with both presidents, Abe encouraged them to focus on shared concerns, particularly China. His diplomatic mediation may partly explain the subsequent rapport between Duterte and the Donald Trump administration.

More fundamentally, however, the deepening of Philippine-Japanese bilateral cooperation is the upshot of a growing convergence in strategic and economic interests.

Japanese Statecraft

Japan, motivated by concerns over rising labor costs, technology theft, and investment threats in mainland China, has shifted its focus to Southeast Asia under the “China Plus One” strategy. The Philippines, among the world’s most promising emerging markets, has in recent years become the leading destination for Japanese manufacturing investments in the region. In fact, Japan is already the Philippines’ top source of Overseas Development Assistance as well as a leading investor and export destination. It is also the leading international partner of Duterte’s ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure project.

Shared economic interests alone, however, do not anchor burgeoning bilateral ties.  In many ways, the controversial Filipino president has leveraged growing ties with Tokyo as his greatest hedge against strategic dependence on either Washington, Manila’s sole treaty ally, or Beijing, the Philippines’ largest trading partner. Japan provides the Philippines with an alternative source of investment and security assistance, without threatening the Philippines’ territorial interests (as China does) or criticizing its human rights record (as Western countries do).

Maritime Security Cooperation

The Abe administration has leveraged its uniquely constructive relations with Duterte to encourage greater cooperation in the realm of maritime security, particularly in the South China Sea. As a senior Filipino diplomat put it ahead of the Duterte-Abe meeting in Tokyo, “peace and stability in the region is a mutual concern to both the Philippines and Japan. And the South China Sea is central in this regard.”

Both sides have reiterated their shared “commitment to uphold the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, freedom of commerce and other lawful activities, exercise of self-restraint and the peaceful resolution of disputes.” Utilizing his personal rapport with the Filipino president, Abe has consistently, though gently, reminded Duterte about the threats posed by China’s maritime ambitions in adjacent waters. It is no wonder, then, that even the Beijing-friendly Duterte lamented during his keynote speech at the Nikkei forum in Tokyo, “Is it right for a country [China] to claim the whole ocean?” In fact, the Philippines has been among the biggest beneficiaries of Japan’s transformation into a pivotal security provider in the region.

In recent years, Japan has provided TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft to the Philippine military as well as multirole vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard. This is part of Tokyo’s broader efforts to strengthen the basic maritime surveillance and deterrence capabilities of littoral Southeast Asian nations. Japan has also stepped up its participation in joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises. Last year, it deployed an armored vehicle unit overseas for the first time in the post-war period, to join Philippine-U.S. war games. Japanese warships also regularly visit Philippine ports, especially in Subic Bay, the former site of the United States’ largest overseas naval base. In May, the Philippines, Japan, the United States, and India conducted their first-ever quadrilateral naval exercises in the South China Sea, focusing on preservation of freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.

Down the road, the two countries may consider more comprehensive defense agreements, which will pave the way for a rotational Japanese military presence on Philippine soil, regular joint exercises, as well as the exchange of advanced weapons and equipment. This will require, among other conditions, basic revisions to Japan’s pacifist constitution which limits the country’s ability to project military power beyond its immediate borders. Nonetheless, under the newly adopted collective security doctrine, the Abe administration is progressively vitiating obstacles to deeper defense cooperation with likeminded nations.

The Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the author recently that Tokyo is “trying to sell us their latest radar systems. We are looking at five systems to be procured from them.” The Philippine ambassador to Japan went even further, describing Japan as the “most important partner country in the world,” which is ready to assist the Philippines amid the South China Sea disputes. Were the Abe administration to successfully upend Japan’s post-war pacifist foreign policy, defense cooperation with the Philippines would likely enter an entirely new phase, especially given Japan’s highly favorable image in the region and shared concerns over the rise of China.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.