Japan PM offers Philippines drug war support

Mynardo MACARAIG
1 / 2
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) is the first foreign leader to visit the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered support for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial drug war on Thursday as the pair met in Manila for talks that also focused on territorial rows with China.

Abe's two-day visit to the Philippines is the first by a foreign leader since Duterte took office last year, highlighting Japan's importance as the Southeast Asian nation's top trading partner and foreign aid donor.

Abe is also intent on maintaining Japan's strong ties with the Philippines as Duterte shakes up his nation's foreign policy with a shift away from the United States, both nations' longtime ally, in favour of China and Russia.

The trip began with a warm welcome by Duterte at the presidential palace, with the Philippine leader then winning much sought-after backing for his drug war that has claimed about 6,000 lives and raised concerns of mass extrajudicial killings.

"On countering illegal drugs, we want to work together with the Philippines to think of relevant measures of support," Abe said afterwards, according to an interpreter.

Abe said Japan would help with drug treatment programmes and facilities.

Duterte, who has railed against US President Barack Obama and European politicians for criticising his drug war, highlighted Abe's offers of support.

"As the Philippines pursues its campaign to destroy the illegal drug trade apparatus, we welcome the expression of interest of Japan to support measures to address the tremendous social cost of drug addiction," Duterte said.

- Controversial crackdown -

Duterte won last year's elections in a landslide after vowing that 100,000 people would be killed in an unprecedented crackdown against illegal drugs.

Since then police have reported killing 2,180 people in anti-drug operations. More than 3,000 others have been killed in unexplained circumstances.

Often masked assailants break into shanty homes and kill people who have been tagged as drug traffickers or drug users.

Rights groups have warned of a breakdown in the rule of law with police and hired assassins operating with complete impunity.

While using foul language to hit back at Obama and other critics, Duterte has praised the leaders of China and Russia for "not interfering" in his drug war.

At a Thursday dinner, Duterte signalled the Philippines' ties with Japan were much stronger than with the United States, its mutual defence partner and former colonial ruler.

"Japan is a friend closer than a brother. That means Japan is a friend unlike any other," Duterte said.

Bilateral trade, which totalled $18 billion in 2015, would continue to flourish, both leaders said.

Abe highlighted planned Japanese help for the Philippines to improve its out-dated infrastructure, particularly for the capital of Manila.

- Security co-operation -

With their two nations facing separate sea disputes with China, Duterte said he and Abe talked about boosting maritime security.

Japan and China are locked in a long-running row over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, while Manila and Beijing have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, which has a badly under-equipped military and coast guard, has looked in recent years to Japan for help on maritime security.

Japan last year gave the Philippines two large patrol vessels and said it would lease training aircraft, on top of 10 coast guard ships that Tokyo pledged to Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino.

Duterte said both sides hoped Japanese delivery of these and other "key assets" would be fast-tracked.

"Capacity-building and assets acquisition and upgrading will be a centrepiece of this collaboration," he said, referring to security co-operation.

However unlike Aquino, Duterte has played down the maritime dispute with China while attracting billions of dollars in Chinese investments and help in his drug war.

Abe said Thursday he welcomed Duterte's overtures to China, but emphasised the South China Sea was a concern for all nations in the region.

"The issue of the South China Sea is linked directly to regional peace and stability, and is of concern to the entire international community," Abe said.