The Philippines was chosen as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first foreign destination this year. This was already the third time in six months that the Prime Minister has met with President Rodrigo Duterte. This time, the closeness between the two leaders was particularly striking and Prime Minister Abe was warmly welcomed by Duterte as the first foreign dignitary to visit Duterte’s hometown of Davao City on southern Mindanao Island.
On the morning of January 13th, the Prime Minister and his wife, Akie, visited President Duterte at his home, chatting and enjoying Philippine bean soup and rice confectionery. Afterwards, both leaders held a meeting where they reaffirmed the importance of the U.S. alliance and agreed to work together to deal with the problem of China’s increasing encroachment in the South China Sea. Duterte spoke of the importance of the U.S.-Philippine bilateral alliance, vowing his commitment to continued cooperation. The Prime Minister emphasized the “importance of U.S. involvement in ensuring the peace and prosperity of the Asian region,” praising the December 2nd telephone talks between Duterte and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
Speaking on the South China Sea issue, Duterte stated that “we hope for a peaceful resolution based on international law. We are also considering holding direct talks with China at some point.” Prime Minister Abe indicated to his willingness to work with the Philippines to petition the international community on the principle upholding of the rule of law.
At a formal dinner held in Manila the night before, on January 12th, Duterte opened by saying that “Japan is a friend closer than a brother. Japan is a friend like no other.” In line with this sentiment, on January 13th, Duterte even gave Prime Minister Abe a tour of private house, even showing off his bedroom. As if responding to the Prime Minister’s desire to strengthen their private relationship, the Philippine side organized a naming ceremony for a rare Philippine Eagle, one of only 800 birds in existence, where the Prime Minister named the bird “Sakura” (cherry blossom) as a symbol of the two countries’ relationship.
But it wasn’t easy to build such a strong relationship in only three meetings.
Last year’s October meeting between the Prime Minister and Duterte was held at the Prime Minister’s official residence with only a small number of attendees. The Prime Minister, noting Duterte’s aversion toward what he considers to be the condescending tone of the West, began the talks by “vowing not to preach, but insisting on talking as equals and as friends,” stating “My grandfather (former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi) spent three years incarcerated by GHQ (General Headquarters of the Allied Powers) for war crimes.”
After Duterte heard this, he began to heavily criticize the United States, apparently feeling as though he had found a like-minded ally. But after things settled down, the Prime Minister said, “Yet it was my grandfather who revised the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Because he thought not of himself, but of the people and the national interest.” Duterte was said to have listened with a grave expression.
After the meeting, Duterte, declared that he would “stop spouting abuse.” But criticism of the United States continued, this time with an emphasis on China. Taking an anti-China stance on the South China Sea issue was a formidable way of subtly raising the issue of economic cooperation, as well as increasing the closeness of the relationship. This time, the Prime Minister’s visit to Duterte’s hometown was to explain that if security environment surrounding Japan deteriorated due to the South China Sea issue, this would affect the aid that the Philippines receives from Japan.
The Prime Minister seems to excel at building trusting relationships with unique leaders. On January 20th Trump will be inaugurated as the next President of the United States and the Prime Minister was the first time meet with him, almost immediately after the U.S. presidential election in November. Now the Prime Minister is apparently trying to put his relationship-building skills to use as a bridge to help rebuild the U.S.-Philippines relationship.
Mitsuru Sakai is a staff writer for the Sankei Shimbun