TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to have private personal meetings with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who starts a three-day visit to Tokyo on Tuesday, three sources said.
He is seeking to keep Mr Duterte onside with United States-led efforts to contain China's South China Sea ambitions.
With the Philippine leader announcing his "separation" from the US, Mr Abe faces the delicate task of promoting the closely aligned security goals of Tokyo and Washington without pushing Mr Duterte deeper into Beijing's embrace.
"Japan wants to explain its regional stance, including its thinking regarding the South China Sea," said one of the sources.
"Abe wants to make a connection with Duterte," he added, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Mr Duterte's apparent cosying up to Beijing has both Tokyo and Washington worried that the commitment made by his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, to stand up to China over the hotly disputed waterway is under threat. Mr Aquino angered Beijing by lodging a case with an arbitral tribunal in The Hague in 2013, challenging the legitimacy of China's claims.
The tribunal's ruling in July emphatically favoured Manila but was rejected by China, which has repeatedly warned the US and Japan to stay out of the dispute.
Right now, Japan seems determined to cultivate a relationship with him and will avoid the hot-button topics (such as human rights) lest Duterte junk them as well.
Mr Abe will hold one-on-one talks with Mr Duterte at his Tokyo residence on Wednesday night, following a more formal meeting with senior officials, the sources said.
"It's unusual for the Japanese Prime Minister to hold a second smaller meeting," another of the sources said.
Mr Duterte visited Beijing this week with a huge business delegation. On Thursday, he declared that the US had lost and he had "realigned" with China. He has railed against US criticism of his war on drugs but has so far maintained cordial ties with US ally Japan.
"Right now, Japan seems determined to cultivate a relationship with him and will avoid the hot-button topics (such as human rights) lest Duterte junk them as well," said one of the sources.
Japan wants to confirm the importance of the rule of law and freedom of navigation, a Japanese government official told Reuters.
Mr Duterte places "great value on the Philippines' vibrant and dynamic relationship" with Japan, a Philippine government spokesman said ahead of the visit.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo was looking at how the developments between China, the Philippines and the US might affect Japan but would not comment. "In regard to the problem in the South China Sea, we are looking to reach a diplomatic solution through cooperation with the countries involved," he told a regular media briefing yesterday.
Japan in June committed itself to a bigger security role in South-east Asia when then Defence Minister Gen Nakatani said his country would help nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam build their security capabilities to deal with "unilateral, dangerous and coercive actions" in the South China Sea.
"There is more Chinese assertion in the South China Sea, and Japan has more worries it will do the same in the East China Sea," said Ms Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia Pacific Desk, Country Risk at IHS Markit.
On Wednesday, Mr Abe will sign an agreement to supply two new patrol boats to the Philippines, the sources said, adding to the vessels and aircraft that Japan has already provided to help keep tabs on activities in the South China Sea.
Mr Duterte and his entourage will then meet leaders from companies, including Toyota Motor, to seek further investments. He wraps up his trip on Thursday with a call on Emperor Akihito.
A US warship yesterday carried out a freedom of navigation (FON) operation near islands claimed by China, US officials said.
The destroyer USS Decatur challenged "excessive maritime claims near the Paracel Islands", specifically Triton and Woody Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It sailed within waters claimed by China, but not within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limits of the islands, the officials added.
It was the US' fourth freedom of navigation operation in the past year, and the first since May.
A person close to the matter in Washington said the operation was not timed to coincide with Mr Duterte's visit to China.