THE TOKYO trip of President Duterte might just show him the wisdom of one’s not placing all his century eggs in one Chinese basket, and impress on him the fact that the Philippines still has friends other than China.
For one, Japan has been there since the end of the harrowing Pacific war — making reparations and helping the Philippines rise from the rubble without tricking it into a debt trap or invoking dubious old maps to grab features in its maritime territory.
Since China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping told President Duterte in their last meeting that the Spratly islands, some of which are home to Filipinos, are Chinese territory, the latter should have been roused from his dream of $24-billion in untethered Chinese loans, investments and grants.
He must have seen the red flags earlier when China built up and militarized areas in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and barred Filipinos from their traditional fishing ground at Panatag shoal, but he let those pass.
Duterte’s excuse for his being compliant to Beijing’s wishes is that the Philippines is not strong enough to engage China. (But smaller neighbors, Vietnam for instance, stand up to China’s bullying, so it must be more than a matter of size.).
The Philippines has a 67-year-old mutual defense treaty with the United States, the only such pact it has with anyone, but political reality on both sides of the Pacific makes it a most cumbersome tool to wield in the face of what looks like creeping Chinese aggression.
Now comes Japan, former enemy and now a friend of the Philippines, reportedly offering military tools to help ward off aggressive intrusions, occupation and other violations of the sovereign rights of the Philippines.
If Duterte’s only excuse for not standing up to Xi is lack of military materiel, suddenly there is hint of assistance that, if properly managed, could strengthen his hand against foreign intrusion.
Philippine Ambassador to Japan Jose Laurel V explained to the press Tuesday that Tokyo wants to help beef up the Philippine armed forces, because it wants the South China Sea to remain open to ensure the unhampered passage of its goods. Total value of all goods shipped through it is estimated at $5 trillion.
Laurel noted that Japan is surrounded by countries that are not friendly to it: North Korea in the north, Russia in the northeast, and China in the west.
He said: “When they go south, what is the first country they will reach there? Philippines. Japan, a trading country, survives on selling its manufactured goods to the world. It has to keep the shipping lanes open. Their only way out is towards the south, keep the east Indian Ocean alive, and get to Europe. If they want to get to the United States, then they have to travel towards the US west coast.”
A logical security partner that can, and must, help upgrade Philippine defense capability is the US, but Washington politics renders that too complicated. For one, Americans are finicky about how their taxes are used, especially for military spending abroad.
Then there is the matter of strings being tied to military assistance and purchases. One issue that often crops up is the possibility of US aid being used to suppress or violate human rights in countries where US assistance is sent.
Mention of human rights calls to mind the issue of extrajudicial killings which have been associated with Duterte’s war on illegal drugs and the summary execution of suspected drug users.
A third country like Japan or another ally helping the Philippine military to upgrade, directly or as a conduit, is something else.
• Duterte to investors: No corruption
PRESIDENT Duterte told Japanese businessmen Wednesday that their investment in the Philippines is guaranteed to be corruption-free and that any complaint that processing of papers is being delayed will be attended to within 24 hours and “we will kill the problem.”
The President made the pledge during a business forum, putting on the line “my honor and my persona” and announcing the moving forward of his Build! Build! Build! infrastructure program into Grow! Grow! Grow!.
Duterte said: “During my time, there will be no corruption. Every Japanese investor in my country, I can assure you, if there’s any complaint regarding hindrances or outright corruption, let me know. I will talk to you and let me know what your problem is and we will kill that problem.”
Before the President addressed the businessmen, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez announced what he said was a fruitful working visit that has resulted in the signing of seven business agreement and 19 letters of intent that are expected to create some 82,730 jobs.
The President flew in on a private jet with a party that Ambassador Laurel said consisted of around 200, a number that raised criticism in social media as too big and costly for taxpayers.
The Cabinet officials reported to be in the delegation were Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Trade Secretary Lopez, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, Secretary to the Cabinet Karlo Nograles, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, Science Secretary Fortunato dela Peña, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, Information and Communications Technology Secretary Eliseo Rio Jr., Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., presidential spokesman and chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo and presidential peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr.
Secretary Lopez reacted: “Every time we travel with the President, we maximize his presence and have him speak to several investments fora and we conduct deal signing, business matching and networking, roundtable meetings with (the President) and investors and secretaries do join as an opportunity to dialogue with the foreign business community.”
Duterte is scheduled to join fellow leaders of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) for the Nikkei Conference on the Future of Asia set May 30-31.