On January 3, 2017, the Russian navy deployed two warships to the Philippines. According to Russian Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov, the deployment aimed to showcase Russian military technology to the Philippine navy and to lay the groundwork for joint exercises with the Philippine military. Russia’s naval deployment was well received in Manila, as it builds closely on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s calls for strengthened security links with Moscow.
Even though the Kremlin is unlikely to agree to a binding military alliance with the Philippines, the Moscow-Manila relationship is likely to strengthen considerably in 2017. As the Philippine economy has grown rapidly in recent years, Russian business leaders see opportunities for a better trade partnership with Manila. The close synergy between the leadership styles of Duterte and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Russia’s willingness to export sophisticated weaponry to the Philippines, have also bolstered prospects for a Moscow-Manila security partnership.
The Economic Dimension of the Russia-Philippines Partnership
Although Russia has historically possessed a limited, oil-dominated trade partnership with the Philippines, Russian policymakers have recently begun to view the Philippines as a linchpin in their strategy to economically engage the ASEAN bloc. This change in perspective has been triggered by the Philippines’ economic vibrancy in recent years. In 2016, the Philippine economy grew by 6.7 percent, the fastest rate of growth in Southeast Asia.
Even though trade negotiations between Russian and Philippine diplomats have encompassed a wide range of industries, Russian investors have highlighted the Philippines’ agriculture sector as a particularly lucrative area of cooperation. During the November 2016 APEC leaders’ meeting in Lima, Russia agreed to increase its imports of Philippine agricultural products from $46 million to $2.5 billion per year.
Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez announced that this trade expansion would be achieved through a massive increase in Russia’s purchases of Philippine bananas and mangoes. Philippine officials hope that Moscow’s purchases of Philippine fruits will be matched by Russia’s increased willingness to export non-GMO meat products, which are in short supply in the Philippines.
The Philippine government has also worked aggressively to attract Russian tourists to the country. Even though the Philippines still trails Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia as a travel destination for Russians, a 2015 Russia-Philippines air services agreement has increased travel between the two countries. Filipino travel agencies have emphasized the country’s Christian faith to highlight the country’s cultural synergy with Russia and increase the Philippines’ attractiveness as a destination for Russian tourists.
These lucrative trade linkages have caused some Russian analysts to argue that the Philippines could be the key in Moscow’s ambition to forge a free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the ASEAN bloc. This idea has gained positive feedback from Philippine policymakers.
In May 2016, Philippine Ambassador to Russia Carlos Sorreta responded positively to Russia’s calls for tighter EEU-ASEAN economic links. As Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia have also strengthened their relationships with Russia in recent years, Filipino support for an EEU-ASEAN trade pact could greatly bolster Moscow’s bargaining power over more reluctant Southeast Asian leaders.
The Underpinnings of a Potential Russia-Philippines Security Partnership
Although many Western analysts have described Duterte’s pro-Russian rhetoric as an unprecedented breach of the Washington-Manila alliance, a closer examination reveals that Philippine policymakers have viewed Moscow as a potential ally for decades. In 1976, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. This diplomatic breakthrough was attributed to Marcos’ fear of U.S. disengagement from Southeast Asia, and his belief that Soviet influence in the Asia-Pacific region was on the ascendancy after the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.
Marcos’ diplomatic outreach to the USSR was largely unsuccessful, due to his repression of communist insurgents and the Philippines’ economic dependency on exports to the United States. Despite this failure, Duterte’s diplomatic outreach to Moscow is likely to have a more durable impact on the Philippines’ foreign policy trajectory for two reasons.
First, some Philippine analysts have highlighted the deep synergy between the leadership styles of Putin and Duterte. Jaime Bautista, the former Philippine ambassador to Russia, recently argued that Duterte admires Putin’s ability to keep Russia stable, despite tremendous political challenges and economic pressures. Parallels can also be drawn between Duterte’s hardline approach to preserving law and order in the Philippines and Putin’s crackdown on crime in Russia during the early 2000s.
Duterte has also publicly praised Putin for his willingness to challenge the Western-dominated international legal order. On November 17, Duterte described the International Criminal Court (ICC) as “useless,” and stated that the Philippines could emulate Russia’s withdrawal from the organization if Western criticisms of his war on drugs continue. Duterte has also blasted the European Union (EU) for its criticisms of extrajudicial killings of drug dealers in the Philippines. This rhetoric has further strengthened normative links between Manila and Moscow.
Second, the United States’ recent decision to withhold the shipment of 26,000 rifles to the Philippines has caused Manila to view Russia as a potentially reliable provider of weaponry. Russia’s Su-25 and Yak-130 aircraft are especially appealing to the Philippine military.
Journalist Rakesh Simha also noted in a recent article for RBTH that Russia could provide the Philippine navy with short-range missile boats. These vessels, which have been effectively used by the Russian military in Syria, could help the Philippine military protect the country’s largely unguarded coastal sea lanes. If Duterte’s proposed 14 percent defense budget increase takes effect, Russian defense contractors will be able to greatly increase the number of ships they sell to Manila, as Russian naval technology is typically lower-priced than similar quality U.S. arms.
Russia’s outreach to Manila could be complicated by a thaw in U.S.-Philippines relations under Donald Trump that results in Washington easing its restrictions on arms sales to Duterte’s government. But Duterte’s foreign policy independence doctrine will likely allow Manila to maintain security partnerships with both Moscow and Washington for the foreseeable future.
Even though the Philippines’ foreign policy is likely to continue to revolve around Duterte’s relationships with the United States and China, Russia has a unique opportunity to forge a durable economic and security partnership with the Philippines. A successful Russian diplomatic outreach to Manila would increase Putin’s influence over the ASEAN bloc and bolster Moscow’s ability to project power in the South China Sea in the years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.