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Japan and China are two of the Philippines’ most important neighbors and economic partners. Japan is the country’s biggest trade partner, investor and donor and the only country with which Philippines has an existing bilateral free trade agreement. Being both archipelagoes with long coastlines and with maritime and territorial disputes with neighbors, notably with China, Philippines and Japan share some common maritime security interests and challenges. China, on the other hand, is the country’s second biggest trade partner and a major potential investor in Philippine infrastructure, industry and agriculture. Philippines and China share overlapping claims in the contested South China Sea (SCS) making it imperative to develop appropriate dispute management mechanisms to prevent this issue from undermining bilateral ties, as well as contributing to regional instability. No wonder that outside ASEAN capitals, Beijing and Tokyo figured prominently in the first foreign state visits of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Because of the Philippines’ strategic location, geopolitical importance and burgeoning economy, it is understandable for external powers to try to obtain the Philippines’ favor. The recent state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Manila with a stop in Duterte’s hometown of Davao, for instance, demonstrates Japan’s determination to keep its longstanding influence in the country, amidst warming Philippines-China relations and uncertainties in Philippines-US ties. However, instead of choosing between rivals Japan and China, the Philippines should realize that maintaining good relations with these two powers is important for the country’s economy and security. Pursuit of national interests through an independent foreign policy requires staying away from great power competition to avoid entanglement. It also requires that the Philippines avoids choosing one over the other for fear of foregoing the benefits of engaging both.
To each its own
Cooperation with China and with Japan have their respective distinct values and should not be seen as a zero-sum calculation. The country finds affinity with Japan in terms of shared democratic values and appreciation for its generosity (e.g. aid, loans) and economic partnership, but it has not completely forgotten memories of Japan’s wartime atrocities. Duterte made references to American massacres of Filipinos during the Philippine-American War, a much earlier colonial atrocity, but is interestingly silent about Japan’s. Japan’s vital contribution to the country’s economy, peace, security and development and perhaps, most of all, its non-interference in Philippine domestic affairs, especially in Duterte’s controversial flagship anti-drug campaign, could be a factor. This means that the tables can be easily turned should Japan join US, EU and UN in calling out the country’s leadership over alleged human rights concerns.
On the other hand, as a fellow developing country, Philippines finds affinity with China as a rising champion clamoring for a greater space for emerging and developing economies in global affairs. Philippines takes note of China’s huge market, increasing outbound investments and tourism which could offer tremendous opportunities for the country. Manila also acknowledges valuable lessons that can be drawn from China’s poverty alleviation experience - uplifting more than 600 million out of poverty, six times the Philippines’ population, in a period of only 30 years. Like Japan, China was also not critical of the government’s war against drugs and was even among the first to express support for the same. A wealthy Chinese businessman financed the construction of a drug rehabilitation facility and further similar initiatives were reported to be in the works. However, China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS), notably the building of artificial islands and placing military facilities in the same, continue to raise concern for more militarily disadvantaged coastal state claimants like the Philippines. Fortunately, the leadership of both sides realize that SCS is not the sum-total of their relations and that opportunities for expanding mutually beneficial economic ties abound, provided that differences be properly handled. Previous Filipino national leaders were criticized for taking a soft line against China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and though Duterte so far is spared from this, it remains to be seen how long can this continue, particularly if further developments on the ground inimical to the country’s interests in this maritime space ensue.
Waters that bind
Aside from economic cooperation, maritime issues constitute another prominent agenda in Duterte’s engagement with China and Japan and these are clearly reflected in the Joint Statements issued after his state visits to these two countries. Having a shared territorial and maritime dispute with China, the word “maritime” appeared 8 times in the Philippines-Japan Joint Statement (PH-JP JS), while “marine” was only mentioned once in the Philippines-China Joint Statement (PH-CH JS), with “maritime” appearing once as well in the annex agreements. However, interestingly, “South China Sea” appeared more in the PH-CH JS text compared to the PH-JP JS – 8 and 3 times, respectively. But differences in the context in which SCS was cited were apparent. Both Joint Statements upheld the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS and mentioned the need to resolve the maritime disputes through peaceful means without the resort to threat or use of force in accordance with relevant international law, notably UNCLOS. Yet, variance in the preferred approach was evident. While the PH-JP JS mentioned the “arbitral award” and “rules-based approach”, the PH-CH JS made no reference to these, instead reaffirming that the disputes can be better handled “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.” Though SCS remains a sensitive issue in PH-CH relations, its inclusion in the JS text possibly suggests increasing confidence and maturity on the part of both sides, particularly China, in discussing the issue. It also suggests the continuing resolve on the part of the Philippines to press on the matter despite the warming bilateral relations. The frequent references to “maritime” concerns but scarce direct mention of “South China Sea”, on the other hand, suggests efforts on the part of the Philippines to forge common ground with Japan without necessarily alienating China. On the part of Manila, the mention of the “arbitral award” and “rules-based approach” in the PH-JP JS provided a non-unilateral call out to Beijing with an underlying intimation that a concerted pushback can take place if further destabilizing China-initiated developments in the SCS occur.
Coast guard cooperation was also a shared item in both Joint Statements. However, while references to it between Philippines and China remain tenuous, vague and exploratory, that between Philippines and Japan is already up and running since the 1990s when the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was separated from the Philippine Navy. Reaffirmation of Japan’s concrete training, capacity-building and hardware contributions to PCG in the PH-JP JS can be taken as a reminder to the Philippines, as the Duterte government draws closer to China and begins probing maritime law enforcement cooperation with the latter.
Improving Philippines-China relations may have put to rest a great deal of anxieties arising from possible consequences and reactions of relevant states in the aftermath of the landmark SCS arbitral award. Philippine magnanimity in providing openings for direct dialogue with China is so far being rewarded by Chinese goodwill investments and pledges. But more than the economic largesse, Philippines will also expect China to refrain from undertaking actions that only serve to heighten tensions and which may produce the very scenario that Beijing detests, notably the involvement of non-claimants. However, despite the warming relations and rhetoric in support of the same, contemporary Philippines-China relations remain largely transactional - as reflected in the mention of “mutually agreed” and mutually beneficial” in the PH-CH JS text 4 times while the same was surprisingly absent in the PH-JP JS. As such, more reciprocal trust and confidence building measures are needed to reinforce this rather precarious foundation. In contrast, Philippines-Japan ties had largely overcome Japan’s wartime record and had taken deep roots anchored on more enduring “shared basic values”, “common values”, “alliance” and “partnership” (terms cited 7 times in the PH-JP text).
In sum, keeping established sound relations with Japan and exploring comprehensive all-around ties with China are not diametrically opposed. Cooperation with each regional rival power has its own respective merit which can be best appreciated in light of the evolving regional and global dynamics. “Friendship” and “friendly” appeared in both JS texts and Manila could take a cue from this – while it may not become allies to both countries based on shared values, it can surely be friends with them.