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Foreign Policy

Duterte’s Pivot to Russia: Strategic Implications for US and China

Oct 22 , 2019

In recent years, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has overhauled his country’s historically lukewarm, often even hostile, relations with China. Concomitantly, he has ditched the Philippines’ strategic subservience to its century-old ally, the United States. 

What’s often overlooked in Duterte’s foreign policy revolution, however, is his even more dramatic pivot to Russia. In 2017, he became the first-ever Filipino leader to visit Russia in recent memory, breaking the ice in what used to be a virtually non-existent bilateral relationship. 

And this month, he made his second visit to the Eurasian powerhouse, pushing for large-scale investments and unprecedented defense cooperation between the two countries. Many have dismissed the Philippine-Russia rapprochement as a temporary flirtation, a strategic ‘bromance’ between the Filipino strongman and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Upon closer examination, however, Duterte’s pivot to Russia is the most remarkable aspect of his “independent foreign policy,” which aims to diversify the country’s strategic relations. In Russia, Duterte sees a unique opportunity to reduce the Philippines’ military dependence on the US, while exploring an opportunity to leverage Russian weapons and energy investments to keep Chinese maritime ambitions at bay.  

A New Dawn 

Throughout the 20th century, the Philippines, which hosted America’s largest overseas military bases, largely viewed Russia through the lens of threat and hostility. Following the end of the Cold War, Filipino leaders ignored post-Soviet Russia, which struggled to maintain any meaningful strategic presence in East Asia and the Pacific. 

In recent years, however, the Putin regime began a strategic pivot to Asia, deploying more naval assets and seeking expanded economic footprint in the region. Western sanctions following the Ukraine crisis have provided an additional impetus for Moscow’s strategic reorientation towards booming energy-hungry and commodity-consuming economies in East Asia. 

It was not until the Duterte presidency, however, that the Philippines began to ditch its Western-centric foreign policy in favor of closer ties to Eastern powers, particularly China and Russia. To be fair, ideology and personal rapport have played a crucial role in breaking the age-old ice in Philippine-Russia relations. 

Duterte, who has openly gushed at and proudly described Putin as his “favorite hero,” is a great admirer of the Russia’s authoritarian populism. Incensed by Western criticism of his human rights record, he is drawn to its model of so-called “sovereign democracy” (suverennaya demokratiya), which emphasizes national autonomy from external interference. 

Nevertheless, as the Filipino leader made it clear during his high-profile speech at the 6th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, he is not against the West or its liberal democratic values per se. Instead, he seeks to correct the Philippines’ historical “oversight of [huge] strategic proportion,” which relegated non-Western powers such as Russia to “the margins.” 

What he seeks, Duterte explained, is “expand[ing] the horizon of Philippine diplomacy by deepening our engagement” with fellow Eastern and post-colonial nations. Yet, burgeoning bilateral relations with Russia go beyond symbolism as both sides explore large-scale military and investment ties. 

Much has changed since Duterte’s first visit to Russia in mid-2017, which was cut short by the siege of Marawi in southern Philippines by so-called Islamic State (IS)-affiliated fighters. Soon, however, Russia leveraged the terrorism crisis into a springboard for tighter defense cooperation. 

The Russia Card 

Top Filipino defense officials, who accompanied Duterte during his first visit to Moscow, signed a series of key agreements with Russia. The most important one was the Agreement on Defense Cooperation (ADC), which provided an unprecedented legal framework for expanded defense cooperation. 

During the months-long counter-terrorism battle in Marawi, Russia offered military assistance, including assault rifles and armored vehicles, as well as real-time intelligence on foreign Jihadists operating in Southeast Asia. Over time, counter-terrorism cooperation has expanded into full-fledged military-to-military ties as both sides began discussing joint naval exercises in Philippine maritime borders with Malaysia and Indonesia, which have served a backdoor for foreign IS fighters in recent years. 

Amid a defense modernization program, the Philippines is seriously exploring the purchase of helicopters, multi-role fighter jets, warships and, potentially, kilo-class submarines form Russia. Currently, the Philippines is set to acquire 16 units of MI-17 medium-lift helicopters (worth $14.7 million) from Russia. 

Defense ties with Russia allows Duterte to circumvent American threats of military aid withdrawal amid disagreements on human rights issues. Several American senators have even threatened a travel ban, among other sanctions, against top Filipino officials over human rights issues. 

Amid blossoming defense ties, Moscow recently deployed its first ever defense attaché to Manila, with the Russian embassy boasting that, unlike the Americans, it’s willing to give the Philippines state-of-the-art weaponry at an affordable cost and without preconditions.

Crucially, booming ties with Russia also enhance the Philippines’s hand in the South China Sea vis-à-vis China. Similar to Vietnam, the Philippines could use advanced Russian weapons, including warships, missile defense systems, fighter jets, and submarines, to deter Chinese adventurism in its own waters.

Moreover, the Duterte administration has also invited top Russian companies to invest in the country, especially in the energy sector. One potential investor is the Russian oil giant Rosneft, which, along with other state-owned energy companies such as Gazprom and Zarubezhneft, is actively involved in offshore projects in Vietnam-claimed areas of the South China Sea. In short, improved relations with Russia provides the Philippines with not only an alternative defense supplier, especially amid tensions with the US, but also necessary defensive capabilities and energy investments to check China’s assertiveness in Philippine waters. 

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