“I enjoyed every minute of our talk,” claimed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shortly after his meeting with Russian Prime Minster Dmitry Medvedev at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit last year. “When the talk got serious, I said, ‘Would everybody, including the security, get out of the room? I want to talk with my friend, Medvedev.’ We are really friends.”
Given the depth of the Sino-Philippine maritime acrimony in the past years, Duterte’s recent strategic flirtation with China has understandably received much global coverage. The same, however, hasn’t been true vis-à-vis visibly improved strategic relations between Manila and Moscow, a key component of Duterte’s foreign policy diversification strategy amid efforts to distance the Philippines from a century-old alliance with America.
Since his election in mid-2016, the Philippines’ tough-talking mayor-turned-president has lavished Russia with praise, often gushing at just the mention of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name. On multiple occasions, Duterte felt no qualms with describing the Russian strongman as his “favorite hero.”
It was not until the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima, Peru, when the Filipino president got the chance to meet his Russian counterpart. During his meeting with Putin, Duterte complained about Western “hypocrisy” and “bullying” against Eastern nations. There were also discussions of a possible, and unprecedented, Duterte state visit to Moscow, to be followed by Putin’s visit to Manila at a later date.
The firebrand Filipino leader has talked about large-scale trade and investment deals worth $2.5 billion, not to mention closer military cooperation between the two countries. Meanwhile, Duterte deliberately skipped parts of the summit to avoid meeting his American counterpart, Barack Obama, who has openly criticized the Philippines’ ongoing violent crackdown on illegal drugs with increasing ferocity.
To put some flesh and steel into its rapidly improving relations with the Philippines, Russia kicked off the new year by deploying several warships, a sea-tanker and anti-submarine ship, on a goodwill visit to the Southeast Asian country for the first time in history. Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov, deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, even suggested joint naval exercises between the two countries, while Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that Russia is offering submarines, drones and other advanced military hardware to the Philippines.
Moscow’s rapprochement with Manila is part of a broader effort by the Eurasian powerhouse to assert its long-diminished strategic presence in the Far East and the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea. Blessed with vast hydrocarbon resources, a massive military-industrial complex, and zero territorial disputes with much of Asia, Russia is poised to play a more important role in regional affairs.
March to the East
Not long after the Obama administration declared its much-touted “Pivot to Asia” (P2A) policy, Putin also joined the fray. In 2013, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the Russian president announced a shift in Moscow’s strategic re-orientation from the West to the East. Putin expressed interest in massive infrastructure investments in the long-neglected and demographically-challenged Far Eastern regions of Russia, namely the trans-Siberian railway. He also pushed for deeper economic engagement with Asian economic powers, particularly China, Japan and South Korea, by leveraging Russia’s massive energy resources as well as world-class space and military technology. Putin’s diplomatic pronouncements came on the heels of the APEC summit in Vladivostok, which cost Russia $21 billion to host.
The event was billed as Russia’s Far Eastern coming out party, and Moscow didn’t disappoint, showcasing a massive $1 billion bridge, the world's longest stayed-cable bridge at over 1.1 kilometers, which connected Russia’s easternmost major city to Russky Island, the summit venue. By 2014, Russia and China arrived at the supposed ‘deal of the century’ energy deal, a $400 billion agreement to transfer Russian gas to China via the OAO Gazprom oil firm.
As Western sanctions against Russia tightened, so did the latter’s economic engagement with China, which voraciously bought one major Russia asset after the other. So far, Russia’s pivot to Asia has lacked any significant economic component beyond growing dependence on Chinese markets and capital and prospective investments in the energy sector of regional states. This is the Achilles hill of Russian policy in the region.
The picture, however, looks more promising when it comes to Russian military’s footprint in the region. The Eurasian powerhouse has astutely developed robust strategic relations with rival claimant states, touting its territorial neutrality as well as reliability as a key supplier of advanced military hardware. The aim is to re-assert Russia’s ‘Asian’ identity, tap into regional markets, and push back against American naval hegemony in the Western Pacific.
Into the Fray
Moscow has stepped up its strategic presence in key maritime flashpoints, particularly the East and South China Seas, where it has conducted joint naval exercises with China. Deepening military relations with Beijing have gone hand in hand with improved military relations with much of Southeast Asian nations, including China’s rival claimant states in the South China Sea.
Russia is negotiating basing access to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, which is a leading customer of Russian military hardware. Moscow enjoys docking privileges at the strategic Bay, where it is helping Vietnam to build a submarine base and is currently using its air base to support refueling missions in the Pacific theatre.
Russia has also stepped up its military exports to other ASEAN countries, which have been building up their defensive capabilities amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. Between 2010 and 2015, Russian arms sales to the region more than doubled, reaching $5 billion. The ASEAN now accounts for 15% of total Russian arms exports, a figure that is expected to rise in coming years.
For long, the Philippines, America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, shunned deeper military relations with Russia. In fact, as one senior diplomat told me, Manila, to avoid ruffling the feathers of Washington, even turned down the offer of Moscow to deploy an aircraft carrier for humanitarian assistance during the Haiyan typhoon in 2013. Under Duterte’s watch, however, things are rapidly changing.
Both ideological as well as strategic interests drive the surprisingly rapid Philippine-Moscow rapprochement. First and foremost, there is the element of ideology and personal preference. With Dutetre rapidly consolidating his grip on the Philippine state, he has pushed for a more ‘independent’ and diversified foreign policy, which is less dependent on and deferential to America. As a populist strongman, the Filipino leader also looks up to the likes of Putin, who has managed to dominate the Russian state, eliminate checks and balances, while maintaining a façade of democratic competition. But there are also more mandane strategic interests at stake.
Amid deepening spats with Washington over human rights concerns, Duterte has also willfully dangled the “Russia card” as an alternative military supplier, including firearms for the Philippine National police (PNP) and armed forces. With the U.S. Senate tightening its noose around the Duterte administration, the State Department has put shipment of firearms as well as major economic aid package on hold. As a result, Duterte has had little choice but to reach out to other major powers such as Russia.
Time and again, Duterte even dangled the option of ‘alliances’ and ideological alignment with Moscow along with China. Yet, it is still too early to say how far Duterte is willing to re-orient Philippine foreign policy towards Russia (and China) without triggering a backlash among the largely pro-American security establishment at home. What is clear, however, is that Manila is more than ready to look towards the East in search of new strategic partners.