TOKYO — The leaders of Japan and the Philippines agreed to cooperate in promoting regional peace and stability and acknowledged the importance of their alliances with the U.S., after the tough-talking Rodrigo Duterte said he wants his country to be free of foreign troops and criticized American foreign policy.
In a news conference, Duterte, after his first round of talks with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday, said he expected Japan to continue being an important part of maritime security in the region, including the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing have overlapping claims.
In a statement, the two sides acknowledged the importance of “their network of friendship and alliances,” particularly one between them. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda told reporters that their alliances with the U.S. were recognized, though not in writing.
Duterte, in his second round of talks only among close aides, reassured Abe that he has no intention to sever diplomatic ties with the U.S., Hagiuda said.
Since Duterte took office in June, Manila’s relationship with Washington has quickly become strained.
Japan is a staunch U.S. ally and hosts 50,000 American troops, while Duterte has repeatedly spoken of distancing his country from Washington, often in crude terms.
The presence of U.S. troops in five Philippine military camps was established under a security deal signed under Duterte’s predecessor as a counter to China’s growing military assertiveness in the region.
Earlier Wednesday, Duterte said that he wants his country to be free of foreign troops, possibly within two years. “I want them out,” he said.
“I want to be friends to China,” he told an audience of businesspeople in Tokyo. “I do not need the arms. I do not want missiles established in my country. I do not need to have the airports to host the bombers.”
As president, Duterte has reached out to Beijing while criticizing U.S. foreign policy. His approach has caused consternation in both the U.S. and Japan.
Still, Abe welcomed Duterte’s recent efforts to improve ties with China.
“The South China Sea issue is directly linked to the region’s peace and stability and a matter of interest for the entire international society,” he said. “In that regard, Japan welcomes the effort of President Duterte visiting China and endeavoring to improve the Philippine-China relations.”
Officials declined to provide details of their second round of talks, in which Abe was expected to ask Duterte specifically about his foreign policy. Their joint statement focused largely on Japan’s contribution to Philippine maritime security and other projects totaling a 21 billion yen ($210 million) loan.
The Philippine leader spoke about the U.S. at the end of his prepared remarks on economic development and investment, saying he was addressing what he knows is “what is in everybody’s mind.”
“I may have ruffled the feelings of some, but that is how it is,” he said. “We will survive, without the assistance of America, maybe a lesser quality of life, but as I said, we will survive.”
Duterte has announced canceling planned joint military exercises with the United States, and preparatory meetings for next year’s joint combat exercises between American and Filipino forces in the Philippines have been shrouded in uncertainty.
Explaining his policy, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, also in Tokyo, said Duterte respects all bilateral security agreements with the U.S. and that he has no intention to renege or breach them, but the exercises are not helpful in fostering Manila’s friendly relations with Beijing.
“It is in this context that we will not be undertaking (them) during (Duterte’s) administration especially so that we are trying to resolve this disputes with China in a peaceful manner,” Yasay told a separate news conference.
On Wednesday, Japan and the Philippines signed agreements including Japan’s provision of two coast guard boats and T-90 military trainer aircraft as part of its contribution to step up Philippine maritime security capability. Japan also agreed to support infrastructure and agricultural promotion projects in the Philippines to help economic development.
“Japan will continue to play an important role in modernizing the capabilities of the Philippines” in maritime security, Duterte said. “The Philippines will continue to work closely with Japan on issues of common concern in the region … and the peaceful settlements of disputes including the South China Sea.”
Duterte is on a three-day visit to Japan. After two rounds of talks with Abe, he is attending a banquet hosted by the Japanese leader. On Thursday, he is set to meet Emperor Akihito.