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Tokyo braces for fence-mending role in U.S.-Philippine estrangement during Duterte visit

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As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prepares to make his first visit to Japan since taking office in June, Tokyo is looking to play peacemaker between Washington and Manila as the tough-talking leader threatens to change the geopolitical calculus in the South China Sea.

During his three-day visit starting Tuesday, Duterte is likely to seek economic assistance and investment from Japan to shore up the Philippines’ battered economy, concessions Japan is nearly always ready to offer.

“We would like to further enhance our strategic partnership with the Philippines,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Friday.

However, plenty of attention will be paid to how much emphasis Prime Minister Shinzo Abe puts on territorial issues and the rule of law during the summit, which comes at a critical juncture in Asia’s rapidly changing politics.

Duterte is upending the region’s delicate geopolitical balance by threatening to separate from the United States and forging closer relations with China, which has been attempting to assert control over Philippine interests in the South China Sea.

A government source said the visit will provide a chance to study the intentions of the 71-year-old former prosecutor, who often changes his positions.

Duterte said Friday after returning to his hometown of Davao that his remarks on separating from the United States did not mean he would cut off ties.

“When you say ‘severance of ties,’ you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. Why? It’s to the best interest of my country that we maintain that relationship,” The Associated Press reported Duterte as saying.

A high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry said Japan intends to emphasize the importance of Manila-Washington relations because they are intertwined with the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Yet experts warn that Japan must tread delicately so as not to unnerve Duterte, who has used hostile rhetoric to address the U.S. and President Barack Obama. The first summit between Duterte and Obama in Laos was canceled last month after Obama criticized Duterte’s extrajudicial drug war and the Filipino leader responded by calling him a “son of a bitch.”

Observers say Japan should not criticize the anti-drug push, which is the popular leader’s top priority, and that overemphasizing the rule or law could jeopardize Japan’s neutral position among the three.

Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Tokyo needs a strategy for the Philippines based on sound relations centered on capacity-building support and infrastructure investment to prepare for the time when Manila is ready to part ways with Beijing.

While China refuses to abide by an international tribunal’s rejection in July of its sweeping territorial claims to the South China Sea, which threatened the Philippines, Duterte said last week said that the court’s decision was low priority and that there is no guarantee Beijing won’t militarize the Scarborough Shoal.

Duterte would be forced to rethink its relations with Beijing should that happen, he said.

“If that happens, Japan will be in the position to provide an escape route — when Manila decides to come back to our side,” Kotani said.

Duterte, who often draws comparisons to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his provocative bluster, visited China last week and declared “separation” with the U.S.

Then, at Thursday’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two leaders agreed to reopen talks on the South China Sea dispute. By putting the issue on hold, the Philippines is being awarded $13.5 billion to fund its infrastructure projects, drug war and maritime patrolling program.

Duterte’s position on the conflict is an about-face from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. Aquino suspended bilateral talks with Beijing after China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal and chased away Filipino fishermen.

Amid this geopolitical shift, Tokyo hopes to serve as a peacemaker between the U.S. and the Philippines by taking advantage of that fact that Manila’s relations with Tokyo are better than its relations with Washington.

Duterte has made several visits to Japan. He has also attended receptions held on Emperor Akihito’s birthday at the Japanese Consulate in Davao, a sign he sees Japan in a more favorable light than the U.S.

Another Foreign Ministry official said Abe and Duterte hit it off when they met in Laos in September, when the prime minister promised to provide two patrol ships and lend up to five used surveillance planes to the Philippines.

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