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Birds of Paradise: What Happened When Abe Met Duterte

As Abe pivots from trade agreement issues with the West, he looks to shore up support a little closer to home with an unexpected ally.

By 4 min read

It wasn’t just pineapples, bird naming and bedrooms. A lot more went down for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a two-day visit to the Philippines to meet with its controversial new president, Rodrigo Duterte.

While the actual summit was in January, its contents and political implications are still quite relevant. Expect a briefing on all that in a bit. First, here are some of the stranger, more whimsical aspects of his visit with the president of the Philippines that took place at an array of venues, including Duterte’s family home.

  • Abe got to see Duterte’s bedroom for, um, reasons.
  • He was also permitted to see Duterte’s favorite mosquito net, which — I’m assured — wasn’t a euphemism for something.
  • Furthermore, Abe managed to get one of the rarest birds in the world named in his honor. He was even given a photo of the newly named “Sakura.”
  • Last but not least, he was spoiled with a large gift of pineapples. (I’m guessing the first person to mention PPAP was on the flight back to Tokyo.)

After pleasure came business

This meeting was more than just an opportunity to sample some pineapples. As far as finance and trade goes, it’s a pretty big deal for the two nations.

Abe pledged ¥1 trillion to the Philippines in the form of government aid and private investment over the next five years.

Abe also expressed a desire to help build new roads across the Philippines. The investments were plentiful for Manila, with plans that utilized Japanese technology and increased maritime patrols to help curtail drug trafficking for both countries.

The leaders also spoke about ensuring that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) be upheld in some way, as both have a strong vested interest in the multinational trade agreement, which suffered a major setback after the U.S. backed out under the Trump administration.

But if you’re a fan of the TPP, rest assured Japan is looking to join a somewhat similar club. The two countries have announced that they will collaborate on a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to further their economic prowess, this RCEP is seen as an alternative to the TPP — perhaps the burgeoning of a new club for the cool kids?

Is Abe in a courting mood?

The meeting came at a very crucial time in geopolitics in Asia and for Japan, the meeting was part of a much wider message.

Abe said he places a “top priority” on Japan-Philippines relations. This will be the third time that Abe has met with Duterte since the former Davao City mayor took office a year ago. What’s more, Abe was the first foreign leader to visit with Duterte since he was elected, which doesn’t paint a great picture as to who might’ve shown up for the Philippine president’s birthday party.

Abe’s choosing to go to the Philippines first wasn’t only because he wanted to drop off Pikotaro. The prime minister is also looking to court Duterte away from his growing warmth toward Beijing.

I like to think the endgame for Abe’s visit was to attend his first bird-naming ceremony.

To accomplish this, Abe is looking to increase his economic, and thus political, foothold in the Philippines (a country situated around important shipping lanes for Asia).

Duterte has managed to put himself at odds with both the Obama and Trump administrations, and his desire to make friends with China has left Japan in a very awkward position — given its close ties to the U.S. government and its long-lasting disputes with Beijing.

Abe’s fears are not unfounded.

China has been quick to monopolize on the recent shift in relations from Manila. Duterte has opened up discussions with Beijing to boost cooperation. He has gone so far as to put aside some previously hotly contested territorial disputes that the two countries had. Until recently, China was looking for areas to invest in Philippine infrastructure — it’s no coincidence that this is an area that Japan decided to pour plenty of yen into.

What’s the big picture here?

I like to think the endgame for Abe’s visit was to attend his first bird-naming ceremony. However, reality is never that simple.

You might have noticed that in recent months, Abe’s meetings have been confined to the Pacific, with trips to Australia and other countries lined up next.

With uncertainty in the White House about where the Japan-America relationship will be in the next few years, and growing turmoil in the region, Abe is starting to look to the East — and not the West — when forging alliances.  

Moreover, Abe also seems to be showing his support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — a small bloc of countries in Southeast Asia promoting economic, political, military, educational and cultural integration amongst its members and other Asian states — specifically because the Philippines was the chair of the group’s last meeting held in April.

The Philippines is only the beginning of a shift in Japan’s foreign policy to focus on its closer neighbors at home. But, arguably, the most important thing to come out of all this? I can now spell Duterte and the Philippines with a 95.2 percent accuracy.

What else do you think was on Abe’s agenda at his meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte? Get your two pesos in, in the comments below!

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