On Monday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that he expected a major deal for the Philippines to buy military helicopters from Canada to be canceled later this week following public opposition to the acquisition. Though the dust is still yet to settle on the deal, its impending death bears significance for both the Philippines as well as its partners.
As I noted last week, the deal in question was for 16 Bell 412EPI combat utility helicopters purchased by the Philippines’ Department of National Defense (DND) through a government-to-government contract with the with the Canadian Commercial Cooperation (CCC). The deal, which is among the biggest modernization projects underway for the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP’s) military modernization, came as little surprise given the fact that the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has long operated variants of Bell helicopters dating back to the 1950s and that it was a repeat order following an initial one that was realized back in 2014 (See: “What Does the Philippines’ New Military Helicopters Deal Mean for its Military Modernization?”).
But when reports began surfacing of the deal, a new wave of opposition emerged in Canada, largely from arms control groups and human rights advocates which had also raised questions about other previous deals as well including those to Saudi Arabia, but also subsequently from some opposition political voices as well. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quickly caved, calling for a review of the deal. But Duterte, not to be outdone, said before the weekend that he would tell defense officials to scrap the deal, and that this only reinforced perceptions that the Philippines should not buy military equipment from Canada and the United States because conditions were often attached.
Since Duterte’s rhetoric is known to diverge significantly from reality on defense issues, it was not clear how this would all play out. But as of the time of the writing of this piece, it looks like the deal is all but dead. On Monday, Lorenzana confirmed to reporters that the formal letter canceling the contract was currently being prepared and is expected to be signed this week. Though this is just a single deal, should it be nixed, it would have significance for the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization as well as Manila’s old and new defense partners that are worth noting.
First, should this occur as expected, it would no doubt be a blow for the Philippines’ ongoing military modernization (See: “Where is the Philippines’ Air Force Modernization Under Duterte?“). Apart from the fact that this was one of the biggest line items therein for one of the region’s weakest militaries and it took around two years to realize, Philippine defense officials and Duterte himself had been suggesting that this would be a boost for Manila’s capabilities in various areas given the range of internal and external threats it is contending with.
Second, the death of the deal also confirms the wider political dynamics that are often at play with such deals. Part of this is no doubt the result of the scrutiny on the Philippines under Duterte’s leadership due to a string of rights concerns – with the so-called “war on drugs” just being one of them – that make it challenging for some Western countries and their publics to deal with Manila even in the defense realm. It was no surprise in this case that most of the opposition to the deal that emerged in Canada stemmed from the fact that “internal security operations” might mean that the helicopters would be used for would include drug operations.
But it is also partly the result of both government’s poor management of this case in particular. On the Canadian side, as Lorenzana correctly noted, since this was a repeat order rather than a strictly new acquisition, and the Canadian government had quickly announced a review of the deal following domestic outcry rather than advocating a position on the issue at the outset, it made it clear that this was not something done out of considered respect for international principles but was rather just bowing quickly to domestic politics. That has significance beyond Canada’s own engagements with the Philippines because it only feeds into existing cynicism about these principles even when they are sincerely employed.
On the Philippine side, there was also little concern given to the specifics of how the acquisition was initially talked about. While it is no doubt challenging to forecast the extent of public outcry ahead of time, it was Manila’s vague characterization of the helicopters’ use for “internal security operations” that produced the initial controversy, and only after opposition began surfacing did we see important clarifications about how exactly the helicopters would be used that were not included in initial characterizations. To be sure, Lorenzana did provide some useful distinctions that could have perhaps informed a better characterization on the Philippine side, such as the fact that the helicopters were medium-lift and would be used more for transport of personnel and supplies rather than being employed as tools of combat as media characterizations indicated. But it would have been more useful had this been said before the outcry had resulted rather than after.
Third and finally, should the death of the deal occur, it would potentially open the door for other countries to become involved. As Lorenzana noted to reporters, with the Philippines effectively being “back to square one” in terms of the procurement process, it would be looking at other countries, including South Korea, Russia, China, and Turkey, for options for medium-lift helicopters.
To be sure, as we have seen with other deals including this one, it will likely take time for this to actually materialize and then for the equipment to be delivered and utilized. And given that this is one deal and will be in the works for a while, we should be wary of sensationalist headlines that quickly see this as a loss for the West and a gain for some sort of Russia-China axis (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”). But at the same time, these cases only reinforce existing tendencies among some countries to diversify their options rather than rely on fewer ones despite potentially negative impacts for broader military modernization.
The dust is still yet to settle on a deal that has produced far more controversy than initially expected. But its nixing would no doubt has important implications and lessons for the Philippines and its partners that ought not to be ignored.