Japan sells arms to the Philippines: can Duterte talk down a war?

A new deal between the leaders of Japan and the Philippines for boats and aircraft could inflame the already fragile tensions in and around the South China Sea. 

[yop_poll id=”1″]

by Zofia Reych

During recent developments in the ongoing South China Sea dispute, Japan promised to provide two new 90m patrol vessels to the Philippines. Alongside ten smaller 40m boats, some of which have already been delivered, as well as five TC-90 training aircraft provided on loan, they are intended to help Manila curb China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea basin.

The deal struck on September 6th during a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Duterte happened alongside the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits in Vientiane. This tightening of Tokyo-Manila cooperation comes at a time marked by growing, and increasingly complex, regional tensions.

Duterte’s change of heart

In July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague invalidated nearly all Chinese claims in the South China Sea basin. Islands dotting the disputed waters have been the subject of the Manila-Beijing spat since the seventies, and the recent ruling could have been a definite step towards ending the scrimmage.

However, two months later it seems that The Hague verdict has not alleviated matters. On the contrary, Chinese provocations have amplified so much that some commentators have described Beijing’s attitude as ‘ballistic.’

While a UN-backed, common ASEAN stance is arguably the best way to counter China’s belligerence, President Duterte proclaimed his willingness to hold bilateral talks with Beijing. Then, in one of his impetuous public addresses, he called the US ambassador to the Philippines ‘a son of a whore’, only to repeat the insult a few weeks later, but this time aiming it at Barack Obama.

The results of the diplomatic incident were immediate, with the Americans cancelling the bilateral Washington-Manila talks scheduled for last week. The falling out has also caused concerns among other countries involved in territorial disputes with China, including Japan. “A soured relationship between the US and the Philippines will only benefit China, and so we hope for a quick normalisation,” stated a recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun.

However, if President Duterte was planning on moving away from the Obama camp, he must have changed his mind. Accepting Japanese military assistance and strengthening the alliance with Tokyo is a clear sign that Duterte hopes to take a tough stance against Beijing. Whether he hopes to hold it independently from the UN and the ASEAN remains unclear.

To China’s discontent, Japan and the US share the same outlook, not only on the South China Sea issue, but also on the East China Sea issue, where Japan claims rights to the Senkaku Islands.

Growing complexity

While Japan, the Philippines, and other ASEAN countries are involved in territorial disputes with China, a completely different issue is muddying the waters. North Korea recently conducted numerous nuclear tests, as well as repeatedly launched ballistic missiles, some of which landed in Japan’s territorial waters.

Faced with the increasingly threatening actions of Pyongyang, Japan is forced to steadily increase its military capabilities, as well as strengthen its strategic alliances. In recent months, Tokyo has been working especially hard on improving relations with Seoul, and, partially as a result of those efforts, South Korea, Japan and the US came to an agreement that allows them to share intelligence on Pyongyang’s ballistic tests.

Forgoing territorial spats, even Beijing is now willing to talk with Japan and South Korea, as demonstrated at a recent meeting in Tokyo, where foreign ministers agreed on increased cooperation. Although recent talks focused mostly on economic matters, a trilateral summit aimed at discussing North Korea’s military activities is becoming more and more likely.

However, China has firmly condemned the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea. The system, designed to ensure South Korea’s security in the face of the Northern threat, is seen by both Beijing and Moscow as an American attempt at upholding its influence in the region.

China and Russia should possibly be more concerned with Obama’s recent decision to lift the six decades-long embargo on arms sales to Vietnam. Despite Obama’s assurances that it was only related to the growing cooperation between Washington and Hanoi, it is yet another clear step towards making ASEAN into a powerful ally.

Some commentators suggest that it would be better if Washington backed off from the South China Sea altogether. The biting tongue of Rodrigo Duterte could cause more trouble than just diplomatic incidents, as suggested by a recent statement by the Philippino PM warning China of a “reckoning” over the territorial dispute.

While the complexity of international relations in the Asia-Pacific region is steadily growing, some things appear certain. First, a regional arms race is almost inevitable. Second, diplomatic relations will be of paramount importance in ensuring peace and stability in Asia-Pacific. Finally, Rodrigo Duterte has much to learn if he is to successfully navigate not only the South China Sea, but also the diplomatic waters of his complex and tempestuous region.