The Golden Age of Japan-Philippines partnership
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - December 13, 2019 - 12:00am

Often overlooked by the interplay between our contentious relations with China and the US is the enduring and solid strategic partnership on multiple levels between Japan and the Philippines. That much was affirmed when during a state visit to Tokyo in October 2017, President Duterte declared that Japan and the Philippines are entering the “golden age of strategic partnership.” Prime Minister Abe and Duterte seemed to have developed a good rapport and have met eight times since the latter took office in 2016. The President attended the enthronement ceremony last Oct. 22, marking his 4th visit in Japan during his administration.

Major partner: trade/investments

A major trading partner, Japan has been consistently among the biggest export markets and import sources of the Philippines, topping the list of Philippine export destination from 2010 to 2017. Japan is the largest foreign investor with foreign direct investments of P689 billion from 2000 to 2018. The signing of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) in 2006 greatly accelerated trade and investments. This is the first bilateral free trade agreement entered into by the Philippines. It transcends conventional bilateral trade agreements as it contains measures to facilitate cooperation and investment in capital, technology, and people.

The depth of Japan-Philippines bilateral engagements extends beyond economic, but also to development assistance, peace and security, resilience and recovery from disasters natural and man-made, and education and training.

ODA: $28 billion

Japan remains the largest ODA donor of the Philippines with a contribution of $28 billion from 1966 to 2017. It contributed approximately P150 billion per year to the six-year Build Build Build program through investments in quality infrastructure such as the Metro Manila Subway, North-South Commuter Railway, and Bohol- Panglao International Airport. Japan’s infrastructure investments tend to be of higher quality, employ local labor, and funded with radically lower interest. Noteworthy is that they have been scandal free ensuring projects are carried over from one administration to another rather than investigated and cancelled.

Japan has been supporting the Philippines in disaster risk management by providing assistance in a broad range of projects from emergency response and monitoring systems such as on the West Valley Fault, to waterways improvement and flood control such as the Pasig-Marikina River Channel Improvement Project.

Peace and security

A total of 548 small-scale grant projects worth over $33 million across the Philippines have been implemented by Japan through the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects (GGP), directly benefitting people in local communities.

On peace and security, for more than three decades, Japan has cooperated with the Philippine Coast Guard in enhancing its capability such as through human resource trainings and the delivery of patrol vessels and high speed boats. It has also participated in joint exercises and provided aircraft and helicopter spare parts to our military. 

Bangsamoro: P25 billion

The Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD) has extended a total of P25 billion to the Bangsamoro region since the program’s launch in 2006, making Japan the largest source of bilateral assistance in the region among development partners. In recognition of its staunch support for Japan’s contribution for the peace process, including the “normalization” process and capacity development of BTA, the government of the Philippines conferred last September the Peace Process Champions Award to Japan, the only recipient among foreign countries.

People to people

People-to-people exchanges have also been proliferating over the years. There are more than 30,000 Filipino trainees in Japan as of end-2018 under the Technical Intern Training Program. More than 2,500 Filipino nurses and care workers have been deployed since 2009 under JPEPA. Following Japan’s introduction of the new residency status for foreign workers, a significant number of Filipino workers is expected to go to Japan.

A dramatic increase in the number of tourist arrivals between Japan and the Philippines is observed, with Japanese visitors to the Philippines reaching 631,000 (eight percent increase from 2017) and Filipino visitors to Japan reaching 504,300 (six times increase over the last six years) in 2018. This follows the easing of visa requirements for Filipinos traveling for leisure.

Japanese-Filipino exchanges are also coming to prominence in different fields, particularly in sports. Carlos Yulo, who is under a Japanese training program and coach, became the first Filipino champion at the FIG World Artistic Gymnastics Championship last October and won the gold medal in the SEA Games. Golfer Yuka Saso, judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, and karateka Junna Tsukii earned the Philippines medals of distinction at the 2018 Asian Games. Half-Filipino sumo wrestler Hisashi Mitakeumi marked his second career championship in the recently concluded Grand Sumo Tournament.

Duterte relations with Japan

What accounts for the strengthening of our relations, particularly during the Duterte administration? On one level, it is a shared strategic response to China’s aggression in the South China Sea and America’s ambivalent position in the region. Both share the belief that there are mutual benefits from greater economic engagement. On a personal level, President Duterte has always worked well with the Japanese government and business community from his time as mayor of Davao City. Japan has also avoided commenting on issues such as human rights and democratic values, preferring to focus on matters which enhances cooperation — such as contributing to the drug rehabilitation efforts. So on both counts, for someone as personalistic and criticism averse as Duterte, those are the factors that matter. In this instance, it has resulted in positive outcomes. That suits the ordinary Filipino just fine. Japan has always enjoyed a high trust rating among Filipinos in survey after survey and is viewed as a positive contributor to the country’s well-being.

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