In under two years as president, Rodrigo Duterte has introduced major shifts in Philippine external relations, under the banner of an “independent foreign policy.” To some extent, the new approach appears to upend the foreign policy initiatives of his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III.  Although there are recent indicators of improvement in Philippine-U.S. ties, Duterte is more widely recognized for his recalibration of Manila’s long-standing treaty alliance with Washington, which, for decades, has been a major pillar of the country’s foreign relations. While appearing to create a diplomatic distance from the United States, Duterte also initiated moves to establish warmer ties with China—a stark departure from his predecessor’s approach.

Notwithstanding these changes, Duterte appears to have built upon a key initiative of the past administration: the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership. Indeed, while in Japan in October 2017 (his second visit there, and fourth summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since assuming office in 2016), Duterte declared “a golden age [for] our strategic partnership.” In light of the upward trajectory of the relationship between Manila and Tokyo, one might ask what a strategic partnership is, and what diplomatic advantages it confers. How does the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership figure in Duterte’s quest for an independent foreign policy? And how does the strategic partnership meet the shared interests of Manila and Tokyo?

A relatively new concept in international relations, a strategic partnership is a less-formal form of security cooperation based on shared interest, although some consider it an arrangement for the management of geopolitical rivalry.

The 2011 and 2015 strategic partnership declarations, two of the most important documents that govern Philippines-Japan relations, identified the shared interests—and the framework of action—of the two countries. The two declarations identified various traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, and natural disasters. Arguably, however, it is the shared concern over China’s rise and increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas that appear prominent in the two documents. Indeed, the 2011 declaration noted that “the South China Sea is vital, as it connects the world and the Asia-Pacific region, and that peace and stability therein is of common interest to the international community.” This was reaffirmed in 2015: “[m]aintaining open and stable seas is essential in ensuring regional stability and is an imperative issue [for both countries] as maritime nations.” Clearly, the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership is based on shared interest, and not on mutual management.

The strategic partnership offers Manila and Tokyo two diplomatic advantages. First, because the arrangement does not commit either party to defend the other in the event of armed aggression, the strategic partners will not have the anxiety over abandonment and/or entrapment that sometimes strains ties between parties in a formal alliance. Second, because it is largely informal, a strategic partnership enjoys more flexibility both in terms of accommodating the parties’ respective foreign policies as well as in adjustment of terms of the partnership. These traits allow the Philippines and Japan to focus on specific goals in the partnership, like capacity-building.

I have argued elsewhere that Duterte’s independent foreign policy is less ground-breaking and more of a return to the hedging strategy habitually employed by many countries in Southeast Asia. Despite the overtures to Beijing, the Duterte administration, in its national security policy, identified the dispute in the South China Sea as “the foremost security challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In seeking to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea by raising the costs of Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, Manila’s strategic partnership with Tokyo forms a crucial component to the hedging approach. Specifically, this strategic objective is operationalized by Tokyo’s support of Philippine efforts to strengthen its maritime security posture through defense equipment and technology transfer, as well as joint training activities and exercises. To date, six out of ten promised coast guard multi-role response vessels have been transferred to the Philippines from Japan, courtesy of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Moreover, Tokyo announced that the five Beechcraft TC-90 King Air advance trainer aircraft that were to be leased to the Philippines will now instead be donated to Manila. Japan also agreed to train the Philippine navy pilots who would use them. In early January 2017, shortly before Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Philippines, the two navies held maritime exercises which “involved communication, training, and execution of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.” The following month, Manila expressed “the need for the two countries to conclude a visiting forces agreement”—an initiative first proposed by the Aquino government—to provide a legal framework for the joint training activities between the strategic partners.

The Duterte-Abe summit meetings of October and November 2017 took place against the backdrop of two other security developments in the region: heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the Marawi crisis in the Philippines. As such, North Korea, terrorism, and the reconstruction of Marawi, as well as a host of economic issues, dominated the discussions. Nevertheless, following his arrival from Tokyo in October 2017, Duterte confirmed an earlier report that the South China Sea issue and freedom of navigation were discussed during the meeting with Abe. Indeed, the Japanese leader earlier said that he “confirmed with President Duterte that we are both maritime nations sharing basic values and strategic interests” working toward “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Although largely focused on development issues, the Joint Statement on Bilateral Cooperation for the Next Five Years released during Duterte’s recent visit to Japan identified “maritime safety measures” as an area of cooperation. Under the Joint Statement, Japan will, “in addition to the swift provision of patrol vehicles and other relevant equipment, extend assistance such as capacity building of the Philippine maritime safety agency including coastal surveillance capability in order to ensure effective operation of the patrol vessels and high-speed boats provided by the Government of Japan.” Hence, at the sidelines of the ASEAN summits in November 2017, Manila and Tokyo witnessed the exchange of notes on the transfer of “coastal observation radar equipment” to the Philippines.  In the wake of the recent crisis in Marawi, Japan’s assistance will likewise be extended to Sulu-Celebes Seas.

By and large, the Duterte administration has sustained his predecessor’s forging of strong relations with Tokyo. As China continues to bolster its position in the South China Sea, Duterte—and likely, his successors—will need to further strengthen and enhance the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership.

About Mico Galang

Mico A. Galang is a member of the Young Leaders Program, Pacific Forum (Hawaii, United States). His research interests include the international relations of the Indo-Pacific, territorial and maritime disputes, and Philippine foreign and security policies. The views expressed are the author’s alone.