Philippines-Japan ‘non-confrontational/cooperative’ middle way



J. Art D. Brion (RET.) J. Art D. Brion (RET.)

I join the nation in rejoicing and congratulating President Rodrigo Duterte on his return from his visit to Japan with whom our relationship has now gone full circle.

As I read about his trip and achievements, I could not help but think of where we had been in this relationship with another island nation whose people we have interacted with for years.

Our ties are at least five centuries old, starting from the trickle of Japanese settlers whom we welcomed to our shores in the early 1600s. These active contacts were temporarily halted when Japan went into “sakoku,” its isolationist policy that lasted into the middle of the 19th century, but resumed when Japan reopened its doors.

Soon, the renewed trickles became identifiable communities of Japanese who played a part in our national life. Our Plaza Dilao in Paco, Manila, became “dilao” to describe the Japanese and their enclave. An active Japanese community harmoniously lived in Davao City well into the 1930s.

This relationship took a deep dive when Japan attacked the US and our country in World War II, leading to unimaginable horrors and the loathing for things Japanese that the war engendered.

The wounds that the war caused took time to heal and active relations restarted only 10 years after the war, albeit with tentative steps and with a good measure of distrust. By the 1960s, many Japanese sailors were still wary of disembarking at our shores.

But soon enough, the tentative steps gave way to a walk, then to a trot as trust returned, until one day we were fully running with one another, hand in hand, with comfortable but respectful feeling for each other as independent sovereign nations.

This long association and the varied experiences we lived through inevitably led to maturity and even kinship in many areas of our relationship.

We can now recognize that the war did not come because of any direct conflict between us. Japan’s dispute then was initially with China and, subsequently, with the US In supporting China, the US imposed economic sanctions on Japan that, under the prevailing circumstances, spiraled and turned Hitler’s European war into the global conflagration that was World War II.

Our people became combatants but our involvement was not our direct and active choice: we were then a colony of the US  As a people, we likewise looked up to (then, as now) the US as our model and big brother-ally to rely on.

But more than all these, our country is located at a strategic location – at the center of the Asia that Japan had to overrun in its fight with Asia’s colonial powers, the British and the Americans. In short, we were then a dagger, poised at Japan’s throat, in its war with the US.

In legal parlance, we were a “necessary party” who had to be involved to resolve the issues between the main disputants. As such active participant, we could not but get hurt and we suffered, although Japan suffered more as the loser in the war.

In these common experiences, lie the common lessons that Japan and our country should treasure as we conduct our respective affairs.

Once more, there is the potential for conflict in our part of the world. China has made claims on territories that other countries, including both Japan and ours, also claim to be theirs.

The US, once again, is reacting in defense of values that, if surrendered, would ultimately affect its own interests. And once again, we are at the strategic crossroad, in fact, right beside the claimed South China Sea whose Philippine portion we call the West Philippine Sea.

President Duterte, as the leader of a small but strategically located nation, has acted with admirable calm and discernment in dealing with the dispute and the disputants. Unlike in the past when we had acted confrontationally and actively taken sides, he has extended a firm but friendly hand to all and has thus shown everyone that he is taking the Philippine side, not any other country’s side.  This is his non-confrontational middle way.

He has shown no ill will towards China and has treated it as a friend despite our territorial dispute. At the same time, he has continually affirmed our traditional ties with the US, while signaling – the “Duterte way” – that we are no longer the colony that we once had been. He has also recognized that Japan, like us, only wants to maintain its own sovereignty and territorial integrity and is thus a country we can identify with.

One valuable lesson from the past (that is more pronounced now) is that the world has become a global community of nations; in this community, what affects one may affect all. Moves beneficial to one, may adversely affect others, and may – when coupled with emotions and national pride – lead to direct confrontational situations. Germany’s “lebensraum” (or need for living space) and Japan’s need for raw materials, more than anything else, set the stage for the march to global war.

Rather than a confrontational stance, nations – more than ever before – must now reach out to another so that they can complement each other in the conduct of their affairs. This is the spirit of cooperation that Japan has modeled in our contemporary times and that the Philippines, under President Duterte, is exploring and fully supporting in his own way.

Japan right now may not have a mighty naval military fleet, but it has a vast commercial maritime fleet that the Philippines supports.  We supply 30% of the seafarer needs of this mighty fleet.  Japan, in turn, helps us train our seafarers whose dollar remittances boost our economy.

Japan has an aging population in need of nursing services and we have the nurses. We have been experimenting for the past 10 years on the workable arrangements that will be beneficial to both, in light of our nurses’ personal needs in a foreign country and the patients’ own need for Nihongo-speaking nurses.

An undisputed reality is our relative lack of preparedness for self-defense and other military-type responses. Japan has the equipment and has generously been helping us with badly needed patrol boats and training aircraft for reconnaissance missions, disaster relief, and attendant transport operations, without burying us in debt. Japan thereby reaches out to us, an act that we cannot but appreciate and be grateful for.

From its post-war conduct, Japan has demonstrated that it does not want to repeat its sad historical experiences. Without sacrificing, and while ever-ready to defend, its sovereignty and its dignity, it has been a model in cooperating with and helping other nations. It is reinforcing this cooperative middle waythe counterpart of President Duterte’s own non-confrontational middle way – even in the handling of potential global conflicts.

Let us hope that others will also embrace these leaders’ non-confrontational / cooperative approaches. Let us, as a people, give full support to our government’s approach.

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