Can Japan's Abe Bridge the Duterte-Washington Divide?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines Thursday and Friday last week. He is the first head of government to pay a call on President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June.

The meeting between the two leaders reminds one of Abe’s common touch and how valuable he could be to help bridge the divide that has grown between the US and a most troublesome ally.

To many Filipinos, the highlight of the visit was the breakfast the two shared at Duterte’s home in Davao City, a populous city on the southern island of Mindanao where Duterte previously served as mayor.   Indeed, the Philippine media gushed about the informal and intimate quality of the encounter.

Abe is making an effort to secure good relations with the volatile Duterte, perhaps with the idea of bringing him back into the American fold, from which he has drifted in recent months.

Besides “breakfast at Duterte’s”, Abe is currying favor by supporting his No. 1 project, the war on drugs, by offering funding for a rehabilitation center.

This is the same drug war that has created friction between Duterte and Washington, which happens to also be the Philippines’s only formal ally.

President Obama criticized the Philippine leader’s aggressive dealing with his country’s pushers, which has included gunning them down in a shockingly harsh campaign. “Duterte Harry” has even urged the public to kill dealers, promising pardons for such extra-judicial actions.

Duterte, who also appears to be genuinely anti-American, has reacted to Washington’s human rights criticisms by extraordinary overtures to Beijing and Moscow. “I am Chinese,” he famously saidon state broadcaster China Central Television in the middle of October while in the Chinese capital.

Although the Philippines hasn’t severed ties with the US,Manila’s relationship with Washington is at a multi-decade low, and there’s concern about further deterioration. For instance, Washington and the region’s capitals worry that the Philippine president will permit the Chinese navy and air force to pass through his country’s waters, thereby breaking “the first island chain” and giving easy access out of the South China Sea to the Western Pacific. 

Enter Abe. With his personal diplomacy, the Japanese leader is obviously intent on developing a bond with the recalcitrant Duterte, who in any event could use Tokyo’s largess. And, Abe did not disappoint. Going well beyond rehab centers,  he announced an $8.7 billion aid package on his just-completed visit.

In fact, Abe has ample incentive to encourage Duterte to join his effort to thwart China’s aggressiveness in the region’s waters. Abe and Duterte’s countries are both threatened by Beijing’s expansionist impulse. China grabbed Mischief Reef in the early 1990s—after an earlier bout of Philippine anti-Americanism—and seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012. China is now threatening Manila’s Second Thomas Shoal, also in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Beijing is using forceful tactics to pry the Senkakus from Tokyo’s administration, and Chinese officials have launched a concerted campaign to take Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain.

Because Duterte cannot concede sovereignty of any part of his country to China—what Beijing demands—the Philippine leader, whatever he may personally want to do, cannot get too close to China. Yet he appears intent on distancing his country from Washington, so America needs Abe to keep Duterte in check.

Keeping Duterte in check will take patience and careful diplomacy, but Abe, who now looks like he will remain in power for the rest of this decade, seems up to the task.

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