Since his inauguration, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has promised to transform his country’s foreign policy. In more specific terms, he has vowed to lessen Manila’s historical dependence on Washington in favor of deeper ties with alternative powers, particularly China and Russia. Given the depth of Philippine-China territorial tensions in recent years, Duterte’s strategic flirtation with China received, quite understandably, considerable attention among media, analysts, and policymakers.
After all, Duterte has overseen a volte-face in the Philippine position in the South China Sea by effectively casting aside Manila’s landmark arbitration case against Beijing. “In the play of politics now, I will set aside the arbitral [tribunal] ruling,” the Philippine president openly declared toward the end of his first six months in office. With the Philippines assuming the 2017 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Duterte administration has claimed that since the “arbitral ruling on the South China Sea is final and binding only between the parties,” there will be “[n]o discussion of the ruling by ASEAN.”
Manila was also conspicuously silent when the news of the Chinese seizure of a U.S. Navy drone within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) broke. In fact, the former nemeses are now even considering long-term military cooperation. Comparatively less attention, however, has been given to rapidly warming ties between Manila and Moscow — the other pillar of Duterte’s strategic diversification policy.
For the first time in recent memory, Russian warships docked in Manila Bay this year. After visiting the Russian vessels, an anti-submarine ship and a sea-tanker, Duterte went so far as to call upon his guests to be “our ally to protect us,” though he didn’t clarify against what specific threats. The two sides are currently in negotiations on major trade deals worth $2.5 billion as well as a potential military agreement to boost their historically anemic strategic interaction.
The Filipino strongman’s unexpectedly rapid rapprochement with Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom Duterte has described as his “favorite hero,” is a reflection of both personal-ideological and pragmatic-strategic calculations. It is also a byproduct of Moscow’s own pivot to Asia, which has adopted greater urgency and substance in recent years, as Russia struggles with Western sanctions and aims to reclaim its Cold War-era strategic footprint in the Asia-Pacific theater.
The Allure of the East
Russia’s strategic reorientation toward Asia officially kicked off with its lavish hosting of the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, which cost an estimated $21 billion. The following year, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin expanded on Moscow’s “march to the east” pronouncements, vowing to step up infrastructure investments in the neglected eastern regions of Russia, expanding trade and investment relations with energy-hungry economies of Asia, and reasserting Moscow’s military presence in the Western Pacific.
In fact, as part of its infrastructure buildup in the east, Russia spent $1 billion on the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, a 3,600-foot span connecting Vladivostok to Russky Island, the APEC summit venue. Other major investments are expected to follow, including the trans-Siberian railway, with the ultimate aim of enmeshing Russia’s eastern regions with the dynamic manufacturing and innovation networks of East Asia. With Western sanctions battering the Russian economy over the latter’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has become even more desperate to step up its economic engagement with Asia.
Yet, with the exception of high-profile energy deals with Beijing, namely a $400 billion agreement to transfer Russian gas to China, Moscow hasn’t offered much of an economic initiative to the region. Nonetheless, Russia has managed to step up its strategic footprint in Asia by expanding military cooperation with and arms sales to regional states, while injecting itself into the South China Sea disputes by conducting joint drills with China.
Russia has astutely leveraged its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a leading global arms exporter, and a non-claimant state in the South China Sea to once again become a regional broker. It has managed to build military cooperation with rival claimant states, particularly China and Vietnam, which have been voracious customers of Russian military technology.
Russia is currently negotiating basing access to Vietnam’s prized Cam Ranh Bay, where it has built a submarine base, enjoys docking rights, and supports refueling missions for Russian military assets operating across the Pacific theater. Between 2010 and 2015, Russia’s arms sales to ASEAN countries more than doubled. At $5 billion, Southeast Asia now accounts for around 15 percent of total Russian arms exports, a figure that is expected to climb as regional states bulk up their naval and air capabilities amid China’s rising assertiveness.
As America’s staunchest ally in ASEAN, the Philippines has broadly shunned deeper military engagement with Russia for much of its history. Under Duterte, however, that is rapidly changing. Duterte has held direct meetings with both President Putin and Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in recent months, during the APEC and ASEAN summits respectively, and is planning to visit Moscow in the first half of 2017 (likely before visiting the White House).
Some of the unprecedented warmth in Manila-Moscow bilateral relations can be attributed to Duterte’s admiration for the authoritarian Putin, who has consolidated control over much of his country’s state institutions, dominated elections and maintained high approval ratings, while constantly lashing out at alleged Western intervention in the domestic affairs of developing nations. But Duterte also sees a potential protector in Putin, as the United Nations and Western allies continue to blast the Philippines’ controversial war on drugs.
Due to concerns over human rights, the U.S. State Department has frozen a shipment of firearms to the Philippine National Police as well as deferring a major economic aid package. In response, Duterte has waved the “Russia card” with more gusto. For Duterte, Russia — along with China — could serve as an alternative source of armaments and trade if strategic relations with the United States continue to deteriorate. Moreover, Moscow has vowed to offer, on affordable terms, sophisticated weapons systems that contrast sharply with the outdated, surplus military equipment that Washington usually provides to its oldest Asian ally and former colony.
There have been at least two rounds of formal discussions between Manila and Moscow on the matter, with the latest one involving Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana and foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., who visited Moscow in late 2016. To cement its growing relevance in the South China Sea disputes, Russia is also pursuing joint naval drills with the Philippines and other ASEAN claimant states, which will require new strategic partnership agreements.
Without question, a new chapter has begun in the long-stale Philippines-Russia relationship. For now, however, there is more symbolism than substance, as Manila has focused more on limited arms purchase, particularly rifles and drones rather than submarines and frigates, while showing keener interest in large-scale trade and investment deals. Ultimately, Duterte is signaling to Washington that Manila has alternative options, and isn’t beholden to any specific power.