2019/84, 10 October 2019
Since he assumed office in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged to pursue an “independent foreign policy” to reduce the country’s perceived overdependence on the US, increase its strategic autonomy and galvanize the economy. In pursuit of this policy, Duterte has paid two official visits to Russia. His first, in May 2017, was cut short due to the outbreak of hostilities in Marawi City. His second, on 1-5 October 2019, demonstrated how little progress had been made in advancing bilateral relations since then.
To be sure, the Russians gave Duterte a lot of face. In Moscow he met with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, toured the Kremlin and was awarded an honorary doctorate. In the Black Sea resort of Sochi he met his self-confessed “hero” President Vladimir Putin for the fourth time, and was given the honour of being the first Philippine president to address the prestigious Valdai Discussion Club, a forum in which world leaders discuss global affairs.
Overall, however, the trip was long on ceremony and short on substance. A number of business deals were signed but their total value amounted to less than US$12 million. Nor was there any progress in advancing bilateral defence cooperation. As part of his promise to implement an independent foreign policy, Duterte has evinced a particular interest in establishing defence ties with Russia which before 2016 were practically non-existent. The Russian navy has since visited the Philippines four times but the two armed forces have yet to hold a single military exercise (in comparison, the US, which Duterte said he would “separate” from, is scheduled to hold 281 military engagement activities with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in 2019 alone) . Moscow is keen to sell Manila a range of weapons systems, from submarines to small arms, but nothing has been agreed to so far. The Philippines is interested in buying 16 Mi-17 medium-lift military helicopters from Russia for US$235 million. Originally the armed forces were to have bought military helicopters from Canada, but last year Duterte cancelled the order when Ottawa raised concerns over whether they could be used to violate human rights. However, during Duterte’s visit to Moscow a much anticipated signing ceremony failed to take place. Even if the deal does go ahead it could trigger US sanctions. Under the 2018 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, the US government is required to impose sanctions on countries that have dealings with the Russian military and defence industry, though waivers are permitted. Despite Duterte’s enthusiasm for establishing closer defence ties with Russia and China, the Philippine military still retains a strong preference for its US counterpart.
The President’s speech at the Valdai Forum was vintage Duterte. While claiming he was not anti-US or anti-Western, Duterte launched a veiled attack on the US and the West for displaying double standards, not feeling bound by the rules and norms they had created and “weaponizing” human rights. In the question and answer session which followed he railed against the Catholic Church, accused the CIA of spying on him, defended his drugs war and ended his comments with an inappropriate joke about “killing girls”. On two occasions the moderator politely cut him off.
Yet Duterte seemed pleased with his visit. On his return to Manila he claimed his trip had “generated greater momentum for Philippine-Russia relations” and that this would help “rebalance Philippine foreign policy towards independence, balance and diplomatic agility”.
Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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