For the Japanese government, it’s business as usual with the Philippines despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive “war on drugs.” Both the United States and the European Parliament have publicly criticized the killings by police and unidentified “vigilantes” of more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and users, but not a peep from Tokyo.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) toast glasses during a state dinner at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, January 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

There have been plenty of opportunities to do so. Last week, Japan’s Vice-Minister of Defense for International Affairs Ro Manabe endorsed the Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in 2017. Manabe offered up this plum support without reference to the rampant extrajudicial executions.

This followed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s January 12-13 state visit to the Philippines, during which he announced a five-year, US$800 million Japanese government Overseas Development Assistance package to “promote economic and infrastructure development.” He also promised unspecified financial support for drug rehabilitation projects in the Philippines. In Manila, Abe stated that, “On countering illegal drugs, we want to work together with the Philippines through relevant measures of support,” without elaborating. But during his visit and afterward, Abe made no public reference to the “war on drugs” and its brutal cost in lives and the impact on affected families.

Not having to face criticism, Duterte reacted by praising Japan as “a friend unlike any other.” But for Japan, heaping prestige and development assistance on the Philippines without insisting on human rights concessions is not only a wasted opportunity, it doubtlessly gives encouragement to a government that deems as “inhuman” those slaughtered in its anti-drug campaign.

Japan can and should do better. It needs to make clear that unless Duterte decisively ends the killings and prosecutes those responsible, he risks a suspension of Japanese financial aid, training programs, and equipment sales to the Philippine National Police. Other targeted sanctions could follow. Japan should be a true friend of the Philippines, and condemn Duterte’s “drug war,” not condone it.