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Importance of enhanced diplomatic ties among neighboring nations cited

Tokyo, Japan – Improvement in diplomatic relations among “neighboring nations” is desirable in principle.

Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper stressed this in the wake of President Duterte’s pivot to China.

“But if they disrespect the rule of law for the sake of narrow bilateral interest, that would be a grave concern for the Asian region,” the Japanese newspaper said in a Saturday editorial, referring to Duterte’s Beijing visit.

After the China trip, President Duterte is taking his diplomatic road show to Japan.

Duterte told Japanese public broadcaster NHK that his talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will center on economic cooperation and “shared interest” in an interview ahead of his three-day visit.

“Now the most important thing there is the shared interest… it’s about the South China Sea,” he said.

Duterte has made a habit of hurling sharp, even profane, verbal barbs at the US and President Barack Obama, which resulted in Washington cancelling talks between them at an ASEAN summit last month.

But Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University, warned against reading too much into such rhetoric.

“President Duterte is an anti-US nationalist and populist leader, which doesn’t necessarily mean he is pro-China,” Miyake told AFP.

Still, he noted the need to “watch closely” his future words and actions.

In recent months Abe has criticized China for rejecting the international tribunal ruling, which said Beijing’s expansive claims to the waters had no legal basis.

At talks Wednesday, Duterte and Abe are expected to agree on expanding ties in areas of “maritime security and defense cooperation,” a Japanese embassy official in Manila told reporters.

Abe has worked to beef up relations with Manila by providing patrol boats and has supported it in the territorial row with China, as Japan seeks support in its own maritime dispute with Beijing.

Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino, took Beijing to an international tribunal over its extensive claims in the South China Sea – where it has built artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities – and the Philippines won a resounding victory in July.

On the face of it, Duterte’s casual desecration of a 65-year-old military alliance and his eager embrace of China are blows for US influence and for Obama’s ‘’pivot to Asia.’’

The United States risks losing presence and access to ports and bases in the heart of the South China Sea – the contested geopolitical hotspot.

Under former President Aquino, China and the Philippines were at loggerheads over the contested economically vital waterway – to the point that senior US officials worried about being dragged into a war with China.

But since Duterte took office in June, he has suspended joint US-Philippine patrols and threatened an end to joint military exercises.

A split would have regional ramifications. Duterte’s sinophile turn could further split the ASEAN regional bloc, which Washington has cultivated as a counter to Beijing’s designs on dominance.

China’s hardline territorial claims and confrontational stance had given Washington the upper hand.

“The region was in many ways coming to the realization that China is not a reliable long term partner,” said Lyle Morris of the Rand Corporation.

But Beijing is picking off cash-strapped ASEAN members like Cambodia and drawing them into its orbit with vast infrastructure spending.

Duterte’s recent visit to Beijing – the provocative setting for comments on dissolving US relations, bagged him billions of dollars in deals.

“A key motivator driving the Philippine president to mend fences with China is economic,” said Murray Hiebert of CSIS.

The souring with Washington could also hit counter terrorism operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda and has carried out bombings, murder and kidnapping.