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Manila-Moscow Ties: Breaking New Ground, But Will It Endure? – Analysis

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Last year, the Philippines came close to acquiring 16 Russian Mi-171 transport helicopters. The recent typhoons that battered the Southeast Asian country show the utility of such platforms in search and rescue and relief missions, especially in areas cutoff from roads and ports due to floods or landslides. But what arrived early this month were the first five of 16 Polish-made S-70i Black Hawk helicopters. A sixth will arrive by ship early next month and the remainder will be delivered next year. They were made by PZL Mielec, a subsidiary of American aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin which previously acquired Black Hawk’s original manufacturer, Sikorsky. While this development bared how U.S. sanctions can complicate Manila’s efforts to expand its arms suppliers, it also showed how far Philippine-Russia relations have progressed in recent years.

REBALANCING PHILIPPINE FOREIGN POLICY

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to pursue an “independent foreign policy” that projects the country as being “a friend to all and an enemy to none.” Diversifying the country’s economic and security partners is seen as a hedge against risks associated with escalating great power rivalry and threats from economic statecraft. But while the country’s warming ties with China—despite disputes over the West Philippines Sea—garner much attention, overtures with Russia receive less scrutiny. In his speech before the 2019 Valdai Forum in Sochi, Duterte lamented how Russia, for the past two decades, remained in the margins of the country’s diplomacy. He described it as “an oversight of strategic proportion” that he intends to correct. Indeed, under his watch, bilateral relations broke new grounds. But with just two years left in office, the fate of this burgeoning ties hang on the balance. 

The Cold War and its long shadow stunted Philippine-Russia relations. Hence, while there is a marked uptick in activities in the last four years, they are starting from a very low base. Defense, energy, infrastructure, trade, medicine, aviation, space, science and technology, manufacturing, and labor represent broad areas of possible cooperation. With one of the highest cases of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, the Philippines also expressed readiness to take part in clinical trials for Gamaleya’s “Sputnik V” vaccine. President Duterte already paid two visits to Russia and spoke before Russia’s premier think-tank forum, Valdai Discussion Club. President Vladimir Putin already accepted his invitation to visit Manila although no schedule has been set yet. But this blossoming ties is exposed to possible disruption with leadership change in Manila due in 2022. Pressure from the United States and compatibility with respect to arms acquisitions may also hound these openings.

An insular archipelago long tied with its former colonizer and treaty ally, the U.S., and a traditionally distant great power more connected with Europe, Philippines and Russia have little historical synergies. But as Russia comes under increasing sanctions from the West, it turned to the East; and in expanding to Southeast Asia, Moscow may mitigate its growing exposure to China. In turn, this eastward push converged with Manila’s growing desire to diversify its foreign policy. Russia is a major energy, agriculture, and arms exporter and has a solid track record in building large-scale infrastructure like railways. These capacities intersect with the Philippines’ increasing energy and food insecurities, its flagship “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program and its military modernization. Manila is also eyeing new markets for its exports and is keen to explore opportunities in Russia and Eurasian countries. Thus, while Duterte’s personal impulse play an important role in bolstering ties, underlying strategic and economic forces are also at work. 

Many milestones in bilateral relations transpired in recent years. Both sides are investing to deepen political, security, and economic ties. President Duterte visited Moscow twice in 2019 and 2017. All his three foreign ministers—the late Perfecto Yasay, former House Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano, and his current foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin—have visited Moscow as well. His Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, became the first Filipino defense minister to ever visit Russia since the establishment of bilateral ties in 1976. Former Senate President Aquilino Martin Pimentel III and senior House leaders attended the 10th General Assembly of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties in Moscow in 2018. Security Council officials of both sides already met thrice in 2019 (Moscow), 2018 (Moscow) and 2017 (Davao). In 2018, Philippines posted its first commercial counselor and defense attaché to Moscow. Russia followed suit and posted its first defense attaché to Manila the following year.

NO NEW ALLY, JUST A NEW SECURITY PARTNER

As Russia ranks as one of the world’s most powerful militaries and is the world’s second largest arms exporter, security is one area that is expected to get a big lift from improved ties. Both sides are laying the groundwork for building mil-to-mil ties beginning with symbolic visits and exchanges many of which were unprecedented. In September 2017, for the first time in 41 years, a high-level Philippine Army delegation observed a joint Russian-Belarussian joint exercises codenamed “Zapad-2017.” In early October, a 27-man delegation from the Armed Forces of the Philippines Command and General Staff College (CGSC) made a study visit to Moscow. It was the first time Russia was included in the Foreign Academic Travel program of CGSC. Later in the month, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus Meeting in Clark as the Philippines chaired the regional body. In 2019, Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna led a Philippine delegation to attend the 8th Moscow Conference on International Security, Russia’s high level security dialogue, which the country began attending in 2015. As of December last year, the Philippine Senate Foreign Relations Committee already passed resolutions for bilateral extradition and mutual legal assistance treaties and the same are already up for ratification.

Naval diplomacy is getting a huge boost. In October 2018, landing platform dock BRP Tarlac with 363 officers and crew made a historic port call to Vladivostok.  In January 2019, the Russian navy made its debut visit to a Philippine naval base in Cavite. In March of the same year, Russian navy chief, Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, met his Filipino counterpart, Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad in Manila. In July, the Philippine Navy joined the 80th Russian Navy Day celebration in St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, a first for the country. Vice Admiral Empedrad led the navy delegation in St. Petersburg, while a 300-man contingent aboard Philippine Navy’s newest amphibious landing dock BRP Davao del Sur took part in the naval parade in the Russian Pacific port city. Since 2016, the Russian navy already made six port visits to the Southeast Asian country.

With arms procurement from Western countries hobbled by concerns over rights abuses, Russia is projecting itself as a non-intrusive defense partner for the Philippines. In 2017, Moscow donated 5,000 assault rifles, helmets, a million rounds of ammunition, and 20 army trucks in the battle to retake Marawi from militants. Russia also expressed readiness to help develop the local arms industry with a proposal for joint production of light weapons for domestic use and even export. Both sides also discussed possible transfer of decommissioned ships, aircraft, and other defence equipment. Nevertheless, despite these recent gains in security ties, U.S. sanctions may still constitute a glass ceiling, especially in relation to purchases. Aside from the bungled purchase of Russian helicopters, Washington’s long-arm sanctions may also frustrate Manila’s efforts to buy 750 Russian rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Secretary Lorenzana also cited incompatibility in relation to light arms as the Philippines is accustomed to U.S.-made weapons, although he mentioned opportunities in co-producing other equipment like body armor.

Moscow also offered a soft loan to finance Manila’s acquisition of Kilo-class submarines. Developing subsea capability has long been an aspiration for the maritime country and would put it at par with neighbors like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and even Myanmar that already have or are acquiring new underwater assets. Fellow U.S. ally, Thailand, for instance, ordered three Chinese submarines, one of which is already under construction. But Bangkok has to delay the purchase of the other two because of public outrage in light of the coronavirus-induced economic slump. For Manila, acquiring the subsea platform was moved to an earlier date under the second horizon (2018-2022) of the revised military modernization program although it remains to be seen whether this timetable would be similarly affected by the pandemic. Should the deal push through, it would make the Philippines the seventh operator of Kilo-class submarines among Indo-Pacific navies after Russia, China, India, Iran, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

However, this big ticket purchase may once again test Philippine-U.S. alliance as Washington already warned of the signals Manila may send if it goes ahead with the transaction and its impact to interoperability. Expectedly, Duterte riled against what he sees as interference in his country’s sovereign decision, arguing that blocking the deal may keep the country’s defenses backward. Manila is also raring to acquire two BrahMos missile batteries jointly developed by India and Russia, making it the first export deal for the supersonic cruise missile. The dilemma for the U.S. then is how to make its case without appearing as impeding its junior ally’s long overdue military modernization. That Manila switched to Polish instead of Russian-made helicopters suggest that the country continues to attach importance to U.S. sensitivities. The threat of U.S. sanctions to NATO ally, Turkey, for acquiring and testing Russian S-400 missiles was also not lost to the Philippines. This said, the demands of national security, the drive to diversify the country’s security partners and attain some level of defense self-reliance through technology transfer, a tight budget, and hurdles in acquiring platforms from the West may bring the debacle to a head.

BUILDING AN ECONOMIC BALLAST

While the security space is getting much of the limelight, bilateral economic ties also hold promise. There is a big room for improvement in this department. As of last year, Russia was the Philippines’ 21st largest trade partner, 32nd export market, and 18th import supplier. Keen to expand business with Russia, Duterte brought with him 300 Filipino investors in his first visit to Moscow in 2017 where he bagged $875 million worth of deals. In his second trip last year, he secured 10 business deals worth $12.57 million. Philippine exports to Russia, which includes electronics, fisheries products, and tropical fruits grew by 18.81 percent from $86.07 million in 2018 to $102.26 million in 2019. 

Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and a proposal to build flour mills in the Philippines to process imported Russian wheat was floated. Russian wheat exports to the country increased five-fold from 155,650 tons in 2017 to 719,860 tons in 2018. In 2018, trade turnover grew three-times and the green light to import Russian poultry meat last year is expected to further increase agricultural trade.

Philippine fisheries and fruit exports, in turn, landed new markets in Russia and Eurasia. Russian tourist arrivals to the country also grew by 20.50 percent from 29,967 in 2018 to 36,111 last year. The country has been joining Russian food, travel, and tour exhibitions to promote the country’s agricultural products and tourist destinations. In turn, Russia open its doors to Filipino travelers through a new relaxed e-visa beginning next year.

In the energy sector, cooperation in geothermal, hydrocarbons, nuclear, and pipeline construction constitute areas for bilateral cooperation. Duterte invited Russian state-owned energy giant, Rosneft, to explore offshore oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea, a move akin to an approach adopted by fellow claimant, Vietnam, to get sovereign backing for its maritime resource claims in the contested sea. In a meeting between their transportation officials in 2017, both sides discussed possible cooperation for a Northern Luzon railway corridor, satellite navigation technologies, maritime education and training, and direct flights to link Manila and Moscow. A ship repair facility for Russian ships was likewise proposed. Russian investors also showed interest in building a metro line to connect Baguio and La Trinidad in the Cordilleras of northern Luzon. A memorandum of agreement to construct a joint Filipino-Russian nickel ore processing plant in Surigao del Norte in northeastern Mindanao was also signed. Local Eastern Petroleum Corporation also partnered with Moscow-based GAZ Group to market light commercial vehicles in support of Philippine public utility vehicle modernization.

In 2018, the Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation discussed trade promotion, product accreditation, Philippine utilization of the Eurasian Economic Union Generalized System of Preferences (EAEU GSP), proposed free trade agreement and updating of 1992 Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement. The EAEU GSP gives Filipino goods preferential tariffs as they enter the markets of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Last year, Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Aleksey Gruzdev visited Manila to hold meetings with Filipino officials. Both sides are also working on bilateral labor agreement to legalize and give protection to 10,000 undocumented overseas Filipino workers in Russia. The Philippines also joined the annual Eastern Economic Forum held in Vladivostok to promote trade with and investments in the Russian Far East.

An independent foreign policy is a constitutional dictum and a longstanding desire for the Philippines. It also suits the uncertainties of the times. Overtures with Russia, among others, give shape to this pursuit. Indeed, bilateral relations made significant strides in a short span of time. This shows how political will can effect unprecedented changes in Philippine diplomacy. This said, the gains remain incipient and the momentum is subject to interruption. Growing the economic and people-to-people pillars instead of just being overly focused in one dimension, like security, creates more constituencies to support policy continuity. To stay the course, Manila also has to dial down on unnecessary rhetoric and optics as this may mistakably portray its quest as merely symbolic and a whimsical display of defiance against the West. A diversified foreign policy makes perfect sense. How it is being conducted should give justice to its wisdom. 

This article was published by Analyzing War

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and the International Studies Department at the De La Salle University and contributing editor (Reviews) for the journal Asian Politics & Policy. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and is presently pursuing his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.

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