The Japan-Philippines meeting of Foreign and Defence Ministers in the so-called “2+2 format” that took place in Tokyo on April 9 is not an ordinary event in the series of others that shape the current situation in the Indo-Pacific region.
First of all, it is worth noting once again the significance of the very presence of such a format in the relations between certain pairs of countries. It indicates in most cases a sustainable positive and even trustworthy nature of these relations. The only exception to this seems to be Japan and Russia, which established such a format as early as 2013. However, it ceased to function for rather obvious reasons in 2019, although it does not exclude the prospects of resuming its work in a more politically favourable future. Speaking of which, during the first meeting in 2013 Japan was represented by then-Foreign Minister and current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
The current “inaugural” Japan-Philippines meeting in the 2+2 format confirms the further development of the trend, dating back to the 1960s, when the Japanese foreign policy prioritized the influence on the situation in the sub-region of the South-East Asia. The origin of this trend, though, goes back to the early 20th century, and today it is more appropriate to talk about the resumption and continuation of this trend after a relatively short break, caused by Japan’s defeat in World War II.
The Philippines’ presence among several South-East Asian countries, where Tokyo has always shown keen interest also fits into this historical context. However, during World War II that interest was so peculiar that no positive reciprocal feelings towards Japan could be expected from the Philippines in the early post-war period.
Still, peaceful life took its toll and bilateral relations gradually started to develop. The proof to overcoming the negative past relations was Japan’s large-scale aid to the Filipinos severely affected by a (“super”) typhoon. The participation of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the relief effort was particularly symbolic. A Japanese soldier on the Philippines soil was hard to imagine just a few years before that.
The initial actions of the charismatic Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power in the Philippines in spring 2016, were watched with some apprehension from Tokyo. Although in this case it would be more accurate to talk about the new Philippine president’s anti-US and pro-China rhetoric rather than actual actions. But even that rhetoric initially was not looked favorably at in Washington and Tokyo. Still, six months later Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric almost disappeared from his public statements, and the novelty in the Philippines’ foreign policy was reduced to efforts on easing tensions with China and develop economic ties with it. At the same time, the main challenge to normal China-Philippines relations, stemming from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, has not disappeared.
In any case, Duterte visited Japan in November 2016, demonstrating his intention to continue the rapprochement with the country, which has long and increasingly clearly become one of the leading regional players with its own problems in relations with China. Routine exchanges of ministerial visits followed.
But the 2+2 meeting in question is by no means routine, because, again, the very establishment of such a forum signals an important step in the overall process of Japan-Philippines relations. The outcome of the event is outlined in the Joint Statement, the most noteworthy points of which should be briefly touched upon.
The first paragraph states that the very fact of the first 2+2 meeting “lays the foundations for a strategic partnership” for the second decade since the establishment of this level of bilateral relations. This thesis is continued in the second and third paragraphs, in which the 2+2 format is presented “as a key instrument for the promotion of bilateral security and defense cooperation.” A cooperation that will be developed, in particular, through the “increased exchange of defense equipment and technology.” At the same time, Japan has already been supplying the Philippines with the above-mentioned “equipment and technology,” and this process is unlikely to be bilateral, at least not in the foreseeable future.
In the next paragraph, the sides note the importance of the US involvement in the regional affairs and state the need for both Tokyo and Manila to further strengthen their alliance with Washington, that has long been fixed on paper.
As one of the members of the regional Association that unites all 10 countries of South-East Asia, the Philippines representatives reiterated the need to develop “concrete cooperation” between Japan and ASEAN in accordance with the bilateral document signed in 2020. It should be pointed out that ASEAN has similar instruments in place with other leading global players.
Several paragraphs of the Joint Statement focus on both sides’ approaches to solving problems in the seas adjacent to Japan and the Philippines. It should be noted that these problems are mainly confined to territorial disputes, in which China is the main opponent for both countries. Still, China is not explicitly mentioned. There is no doubt, however, who is meant as the source of “illegal maritime claims, militarization, unilateral activities and threats to use force in the South China Sea.”
The Japanese side expressed support for the July 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, rejecting China’s claims to 80-90% of the South China Sea area. It should be noted that the very consideration of this issue was made at the request of the Philippines Government in 2013, i.e. three years before Duterte had come to power. After some hesitation on his part (during the initial period of building relations with China), the latter, too, eventually accepted the validity of the PCA decision. The Philippines received Japan’s official support in the document under discussion. And not for the first time either.
Other noteworthy points were the entry deploring the “grave humanitarian consequences of the hostilities, in particular in Butcha.” However, no specifics are given as to what actually happened “in Butcha” or who were the perpetrators.
In general, the results of the first Japan-Philippines meeting in the 2+2 format confirm the trend that has been noticed more than once in the NEO, i.e. a more and more noticeable shift of the pendulum of Philippines’ foreign policy from the neutral position, established with Duterte’s coming to power. The pendulum is consistently shifting towards China’s main opponents.
And there is no reason to expect any significant changes in this trend after the general elections, scheduled for May 9, 2022.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.