While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial China policy has understandably attracted considerable attention, few have taken his strategic pivot to Russia seriously enough. Instead, even some senior Filipino officials view burgeoning ties with Moscow as nothing but a reflection of Duterte’s personal fascination with Russia and his famed “bromance” with Vladimir Putin.

But reaching out to Moscow carries potentially huge geostrategic implications. In the spirit of his so-called “independent foreign policy,” Duterte has single-handedly shattered the profound stigma surrounding defense cooperation with Russia, with far reaching consequences. The Philippines is now seriously exploring large-scale purchases of advanced Russian military hardware as well as offshore energy investments to strengthen its hand in the South China Sea amid Beijing’s rising assertiveness.

Strategic Diversification

To put things into perspective, Duterte is the only Filipino leader in recent memory to have visited Russia for an official mission. Throughout the Cold War, the Philippines, host to the United States’ largest overseas naval and air bases, largely shunned relations with Moscow. Thereafter, post-Soviet Russia had minimal strategic presence in Southeast Asia, reduced at best to an afterthought among Filipino leaders who actively prioritized bilateral relations with the United States and China.

An element of personal diplomacy and ideological alignment has driven this surprising turn in the historically lukewarm Philippine-Russia relationship. As an authoritarian-leaning populist, Duterte has repeatedly praised Putin, calling the Russian leader his “favorite hero” and citing his supposed personal decisiveness, iron-fist rule, and brazen defiance of the West. Outraged by international criticism of his brutal drug war, the Filipino leader is naturally drawn to the Russian notion of “sovereign democracy” (suverennaya demokratiya), which emphasizes national insulation from external, especially Western, influence.

But beyond the personal dynamics, there is a deeper strategic argument for Duterte’s pivot to Russia. As the Filipino leader made it clear during his high-profile speech at the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, with Putin and several Asian leaders in attendance, his goal is not to ditch the long-standing alliance with the United States, nor is he against liberal democratic values per se. Instead, he seeks to amend an “oversight of [huge] strategic proportion” in the Philippines’ traditional foreign policy, which relegated Russia to “the margins.” He clarified that he is primarily interested in “expand[ing] the horizon of Philippine diplomacy by deepening our engagement” with like-minded nations and non-western powers. In short, this is less about Putin and more about the need for the Philippines to find new partners.

Duterte’s recent five-day visit to Russia was not his first. In early-2017, the Filipino leader had to cut short his state visit to Moscow following the siege of Marawi by Islamic State-affiliated groups in the southern Philippines. Despite the disruption, the Philippine delegation, which included top defense and national security officials, signed a number of key agreements with the Eurasian power, including an Agreement on Defense Cooperation.

The upshot was the rapid emaciation of the U.S.-trained Philippine defense establishment’s stigma against cooperation with Russia.  As the battle of Marawi raged on, Russia seized on the opportunity to become a key source of counter-terrorism assistance. With a defense agreement in place, Moscow offered direct military assistance, including assault rifles and armored vehicles, in addition to intelligence on foreign IS fighters operating in the region.

Russia’s South China Sea Foray

Counter-terrorism cooperation quickly became a springboard for closer defense relations that have the potential to strengthen the Philippines’ position in the South China Sea. In recent years, Russian warships have made regular port calls in Manila as both sides began discussing joint naval exercises in Philippine waters, especially the country’s porous borders with Malaysia and Indonesia, which have served as entry points for transnational terrorists.

The Philippines is now set to acquire 16 Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters (worth $14.7 million), a symbolic purchase that may pave the way for more advanced and large-scale acquisitions. Amid a multi-billion-dollar military modernization program, with a focus on developing maritime security capabilities, the Philippine military is actively seeking alternative and more affordable arms suppliers.

According to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the Southeast Asian country is currently exploring the purchase of attack helicopters, multi-role fighter jets, and warships from Russia. He even hinted at a potential purchase of Kilo-class submarines, which could be deployed for defense of Philippine interests in the South China Sea. Like Vietnam and Malaysia, the Philippines is carefully examining large-scale purchases of (relatively affordable) advanced Russian weaponry to help keep external threats, particularly China, at bay.

Recognizing the vast potential in bilateral defense cooperation, Moscow recently deployed its first ever defense attaché to Manila, with one Russian diplomat boasting, “What we can assure you, if you are going to procure military equipment, for us, we are going to give you brand new ones and not second hand.” It was a thinly veiled reference to Duterte’s constant criticism of the United States for supposedly giving its Southeast Asian ally mostly hand-me-down military equipment.

During the Philippine-Russia Business Forum this month, Duterte also invited top Russian companies to invest in the country, particularly in the energy and infrastructure sector. He has reportedly sought offshore energy investments from Russian oil giant Rosneft. 

The details are yet to be fully disclosed, but the two sides are likely exploring the possibility of Russian offshore investments in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. After all, major Russian companies including Rosneft as well as Gazprom and Zarubezhneft are active in Vietnamese offshore oil and gas projects in the area.

The Philippines could take a page out of Vietnam’s playbook by leveraging Russian military technology and energy investments to ward off Chinese aggression in its waters. Despite its close relations with Beijing, Moscow has shown remarkable interest in expanding its strategic footprint in Southeast Asia, especially among China’s rivals in the South China Sea. Burgeoning Philippine-Russian relations represent, to use the tired Chinese diplomatic lexicon, a potential “win-win” cooperation for both sides.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.