Abe reaches out to Manila as it gets closer to Beijing

Mr Abe and Mr Duterte at the presidential palace in Manila yesterday. The Japanese Premier is keen on keeping strong ties with the Philippines as Mr Duterte shifts away from Japan's close ally, the United States.
Mr Abe and Mr Duterte at the presidential palace in Manila yesterday. The Japanese Premier is keen on keeping strong ties with the Philippines as Mr Duterte shifts away from Japan's close ally, the United States.PHOTO: REUTERS

Japanese PM offers $12.8b aid package and help with Duterte's war on drugs and terror

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began his six-day tour of AsiaPacific nations yesterday with a push to deepen Tokyo's ties with Manila, amid growing competition from Beijing.

Mr Abe sought to woo the Philippines with a US$9 billion (S$12.8 billion) aid package, and offers to help President Rodrigo Duterte in his war on drug trafficking and terror.

Mr Abe is keen on keeping strong ties with the Philippines as Mr Duterte is shifting away from Japan's close ally, the United States. The Philippines' mercurial leader has chafed at American criticisms of his controversial anti-crime drive.

Since he took office in June, police have killed more than 2,000 people in anti-drug operations, and more than 3,000 others have been killed in unexplained circumstances.

The US has blocked arms sales and withheld aid to the Philippines. That has compelled Mr Duterte to gravitate towards China and Russia. Unlike the US, Japan has refrained from criticising Mr Duterte's drug war, and has instead offered to help.

In a joint news conference, Mr Duterte said he and Mr Abe agreed to work together "in pursuing a comprehensive approach in the war against the illegal drugs trade".

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    Japan is building 10 fast patrol boats - meant for the Philippine Coast Guard - at a shipyard in Yokohama.

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    Japan also previously agreed to lease to Manila five TC-90 surveillance planes.

"As the Philippines pursues its campaign to destroy the illegal drugs trade apparatus, we welcome the expressed strong interests of Japan to support measures to address the tremendous social cost of drug addiction," Mr Duterte said.

Mr Abe said Japan "will tap, among other things, knowledge of the private sector to assist with the improvement of related facilities, formulation of treatment programmes, and other areas".

Japan is also offering to shore up the Philippines' severely under- equipped military to help it fight Muslim terrorists and pirates plaguing waters around the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao.

Philippine and Japanese officials yesterday signed an agreement on the delivery of fast patrol boats for the Philippine Coast Guard. Japan is building 10 of these vessels at a shipyard in Yokohama. Japan had also previously agreed to lease to Manila five TC-90 surveillance planes.

To help create bilateral business opportunities, Japan pledged nearly US$9 billion of official development assistance and private-sector investments over the next five years.

Mr Abe's diplomacy drive comes amid China's growing economic and political influence in South-east Asia. Japan has lagged behind China in terms of trade with Asean. In the decade to 2015, Japanese trade with the six largest Asean economies increased by just 27 per cent, while China's trade more than tripled.

China has, meanwhile, made inroads to cement its vast claims over the South China Sea, including by dredging reefs. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have territorial claims that overlap China's.

Japan is engaged in its own dispute with China over parts of the East China Sea.

"The issue of the South China Sea is linked directly to regional peace and stability, and is of concern to the entire international community," said Mr Abe yesterday.

He said while he welcomed Mr Duterte's efforts to improve his nation's ties with China, "the significance of the rule of law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and non-militarisation have been confirmed at Asean-related meetings last year".

The Philippines assumed chairmanship of Asean on Jan 1. Mr Abe will, during his tour, visit Indonesia, Vietnam and Australia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2017, with the headline 'Abe reaches out to Manila as it gets closer to Beijing'. Print Edition | Subscribe