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Jan 12, 7:26 AM EST

Abe pledges investments, speedboats to China-friendly Manila


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MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday pledged $8.7 billion worth of business opportunities and private investments along with speedboats and other counterterrorism equipment to the Philippines, whose president has boosted ties with China.

Following talks with President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Abe welcomed the Philippine leader's efforts to improve Manila's ties with Beijing "in light of the arbitral award," referring to the Philippines' victory in an arbitration ruling declaring China's claims to the South China Sea invalid.

China has refused to recognize the July 12 arbitration decision and has warned the United States and other countries not involved in the territorial row not to meddle in the disputes, which Beijing wants to be settled through one-on-one negotiations with other rival claimant countries like the Philippines.

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

His two-day visit to Manila aims to further solidify relations with the Philippines at a time when Duterte is cozying up to China and Russia while taking a hostile stance toward Tokyo's main ally, the United States. Japan is among the top trading partners of the Philippines and one of its largest aid providers.

The Philippines is Abe's first stop in a four-nation swing as he presses efforts to boost Japan's trade and security engagements amid China's rise to Asian dominance. He will later travel to Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Accompanied by his wife and a business delegation, Abe is the first head of state to visit since Duterte took office in June. It's an important affirmation of Duterte's leadership at a time when he faces domestic and international criticism for a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

Japan will help the Philippines fight illegal drugs by helping formulate treatment programs and improve facilities, Abe said.

In a bid to foster Philippine development, he said Japan "will create business opportunities through Official Development Assistance and private sector investments which, together, will be in the order of one trillion yen ($8.7 billion) over the next five years."

Abe and Duterte witnessed the signing of a number of agreements and the exchange of documents, including a Japanese grant of 600 million yen ($5 million) for boats and other counterterrorism equipment for the Philippine coast guard.

At the start of their talks, Duterte thanked Abe for Japan's help to strengthen the Philippine coast guard and said he was looking forward for the delivery of additional Japanese assistance.

After Manila, Abe will travel to southern Davao city, Duterte's hometown, where Philippine officials said the president may host breakfast for the Japanese premier at his home.

China has backed Duterte's bloody crackdown on drug users and pushers, and a Chinese real estate magnate financed the construction of the biggest drug rehab center in the country, drawing praises from the president.

While Duterte has cozied up to China and Russia, he has railed at President Barack Obama's outgoing administration for raising alarm over human rights concerns. The brash-talking Duterte has repeatedly vowed to scale back joint military exercises and other defense engagements with the U.S., his country's treaty ally, but has walked back on many of his threats.

Duterte visited Japan in October when he and Abe agreed to cooperate in promoting regional peace and stability and acknowledged the importance of their alliances with Washington.

About two dozen activists led by four Filipina women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops in World War II protested outside the Japanese Embassy, demanding justice for their sufferings in a call that has largely been muted by the blossoming relations of the Asian neighbors.

Narcisa Claveria, 87, said she and other former sex slaves were treated "like pigs" by Japanese troops during the war, lamenting that many of her fellow victims had died without getting justice.

"Shinzo Abe, end the issue of women now," Claveria said at the protest. "You are meeting again with the president, will you bring forces of aggression here again? Are you going to make women here like pigs again?"

It's not clear if the demand by the former sex slaves were raised by Duterte in his talk with Abe.

A survey released Thursday by independent pollster Pulse Asia shows most Filipinos trust Japan and the United States while a majority distrust China and Russia.

The survey found 76 percent of adult Filipinos trust the U.S. while 70 percent expressed trust for Japan. Sixty-one percent said they lacked trust in China and 58 percent distrust Russia. The survey of 1,200 adult respondents nationwide between Dec. 6 to 11 had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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