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Shinzo Abe to play mediator during Duterte's Japan visit, amid US tensions

Japan's Abe to manage US-Philippines balancing act

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks set to manage a delicate balancing act, as he hosts Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his raft of new foreign policy objectives.

Fresh from a tour to the mainland where he cemented his country's pivot to China, Duterte arrives in Tokyo on Tuesday, where he will meet with Abe and top C-suite executives. But Duterte has placed Abe in a tricky situation, having announced a vague separation from the U.S, Japan's number one ally, and a pivot to China, Tokyo's top rival, last week.

"On one hand, Abe is in a tough spot given Duterte's bombastic rhetoric on the U.S., but on the positive side, Japan remains a very well-liked country in the Philippines and can play an increasingly important role as a facilitator if ties between Manila and Washington continue to descend," J. Berkshire Miller, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained.

One thing's for certain, PM Abe will limit the number of public events during Duterte's visit to contain any potentially explosive rhetoric, Miller added. At previous press conferences, firebrand Duterte has insulted U.S. President Barack Obama, amongst others.

Analysts widely agree that Abe will also be smart enough to don his mediator hat and overlook Duterte's views on the U.S. and China.

Japan's head of state has worked hard to create diplomatic space for his country by maintaining a presence in countries where the U.S. isn't friendly, such as Turkey and Russia, effectively guaranteeing Japan's autonomy in foreign relations, Tobias Harris, senior associate at Teneo Intelligence, said.

"In a way, it's kind of money in the bank. If Washington really needs an intermediary in the future, Japan may be in a position to do that," he said. For now, Japan merely wanted assurance that Manila wasn't going to jump off the deep end when it came to breaking ties with the U.S, he added.

Manila - October 21, 2016: Members of an indigenous group and activists participate in a protest calling for the immediate pull-out of US troops in the Philippines, showing support for an independent foreign policy.
NOEL CELIS | AFP | Getty Images

The Philippine leader, who recently clarified that his separation with Washington only referred to foreign policy and not diplomatic relations, will likely do his utmost to accommodate Abe.

"Duterte's attitude towards Japan is remarkably different than the U.S. While he almost enjoys sticking his finger in the eye of Obama, he's been careful to praise Tokyo for its commitment to the Philippines," Harris told CNBC's "The Rundown" on Tuesday.

Manila and Tokyo share robust economies ties, with Japan the largest recipient of Philippine exports as well as a major investor and aid donor. Tokyo is looking to offer Manila $48.2 million in loans for infrastructure projects, including upgrades for public transit systems, local media reported this week. Duterte accepted $24 billion in financing and investment from Beijing last week.

A friendly atmosphere between the two leaders is guaranteed by the fact that Abe won't be mentioning Duterte's extrajudicial killings, which have been criticized by the U.S. and Europe. In general, Japan does not highlight or push human rights issues on the international stage, noted Alison Evans, deputy head and senior analyst of Asia-Pacific country risk at IHS Markit.

"This week's one-on-one meeting, following larger sessions arranged in Tokyo, comes after Abe and Duterte met in Laos last month. This indicates that Abe is putting time and effort into maintaining and improving ties with the Philippines," she said.

Security cooperation is another reason why Abe will ensure a smooth visit, Evans added, pointing to the fact that Japan had sold old coast-guard vessels to the Philippines and was scheduled to lend it surveillance aircraft.

The security element of relationship is indirectly tied to the South China Sea conflict. The Philippines recently softened its stance towards Beijing over rights to the disputed maritime region following its legal victory in an international court.

"Japan has a key interest in promoting the rule of law so officials will try to insert the territorial conflict on the agenda but Manila is likely to concentrate on business and trade ties instead," Miller said.

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