Although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had to cut short his historic visit to Russia on Wednesday following the invasion of Marawi City in Mindanao by Islamic extremist groups, the trip is being seen as extremely productive for a number of sectors including trade, agriculture, tourism and, significantly – given the terrorist threat the country is now facing – defence.
Some US$875 million-worth of deals between Philippine and Russian companies have come from this trip according to Trade and Industry Secretary, Ramon Lopez, with interest in forging projects that span the gamut of industry from power generation and oil and gas to steel and construction. But defence issues were undoubtedly highest on Duterte’s to-do list.
Access to Russian-made weapons had been on his agenda long before the rebel Maute Group started its systematic destruction and bloodletting in Marawi. Prior to that incursion, the Philippine Armed Forces had been involved in a protracted campaign to drive another terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, out of Mindanao – a campaign that had been increasing in intensity for the past three months.
Part of those actions call for greater air power to conduct highly targeted airstrikes against the insurgents in their strongholds – particularly in the island chain of Basilan, Jolo and Tawi Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago; but now possibly in the Maute Group’s home province of Lanao del Sur, territory in Maguindanao province held by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and areas of South Cotabato and Sarangani provinces where Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines has operations centres.
For that Duterte and his Philippine Air Force commanders need precision strike power – laser- or satellite-guided bombs that will allow them to maximise impact on the terrorist bases while minimising collateral damage to civilians and surrounding property.
What he most likely has on his shopping list is something like the KAB-500S-E (photo), a precise smart bomb which uses a satellite-navigation system that can be dropped from an altitude of between 500 and 5,000 metres and cruise into its target with a 380 kilogram payload of high explosives at anywhere from 300 to 600 miles an hour. This is a top-of-the-line precision-guided munition which was used by the Russian Air Force for the first time in September 2015 during airstrikes against Islamic militants in Syria.
Another possibility is the older KAB-500L which is used by the nine member states of the Russian Commonwealth as well as by the Indian Air Force; or the KAB-1500L which the Russians deployed against mujahideen forces in Chechnya in the 1990s. These two armaments are similar to the US-developed Paveway series of laser-guided bombs.
All this would fit with remarks made by Philippine Foreign Minister, Alan Peter Cayetano in Moscow on Wednesday. “They have showed what is available to us … These are really modern equipment that can be used to fight terrorists that will avoid injuring or causing deaths or damage to innocent bystanders or people in a community and also to prevent collateral damage,” he said.
Presently, the Philippine Air Force is limited to using ‘unguided bombs’, often referred to as ‘dumb’ or ‘iron’ bombs which employ simple gravity to get to their targets. Certainly, acquiring and deploying accurately guided munitions which can strike surgically will greatly assist Philippine ground troops in their campaign against the Islamic State-affiliated terror groups which are posing a serious threat to peace in Mindanao.
Cayetano, who said that the “response of the Russian Federation through President Putin was very, very generous,” adding that Moscow is now “awaiting our proposals”.
In the Russian capital the two sides also signed a defence cooperation agreement. This will open the way for any future arms deals with Russia – the world’s second-biggest weapons manufacturer and supplier after the US. It will also expand training-exchange programmes. Headway was also likely made on a joint proposal for each side to open defence-attaché offices in each other’s capitals which will facilitate greater collaboration in counter-terrorism efforts.
Elsewhere, cooperation agreements were reached on a number of agriculture and fisheries issues including livestock breeding and produce storage and transportation; commerce issues, to pursue mutually beneficial bilateral trade; tourism issues, including a three-year joint action programme to promote tourist understanding of the two countries, and energy issues for cooperation on nuclear-energy, including a memorandum of understanding signed with the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation.
The Philippines’ only attempt to create a nuclear-power industry came in 1973, following an Opec-imposed oil embargo which quadrupled the price of oil imports and threatened the economy. To cut a very long story short, this resulted in the construction – starting in 1978 – of a US$1.1 billion plant at Bataan in Luzon. However, that plant was built close to a major geological fault line; furthermore, an inspection of the plant revealed 4,000 defects causing costs to balloon to US$2.3 billion over the next eight years.
Following the nuclear disaster at a power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, however, the newly installed government of Corazon Aquino shelved all plans for the Bataan plant which ever since has been regarded as the Philippine biggest white elephant. Now, according to Energy Secretary, Alfonso Cusi, a feasibility study is to be carried out at this installation to assess the viability of reviving it.
All that aside, what the Russian visit delivered was a massive opening up of relations between Moscow and Manila – and not least in trade. Bilateral trade between these two countries was just US$226 million last year; this trip alone is pretty much guaranteed to more than double that.
Among other items, the Philippines-Russia Business Council reported that it’s signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Moscow’s Food City, a 91-hectare market – Russia’s largest local and foreign produce outlet – which will soon have its own customs terminal. Philippine growers of mango, banana and pineapple are likely to be early beneficiaries.
Other Philippine products which are attracting Russian interest are coconut oil, frozen marine and seafood items, processed food and beverage, furniture and car batteries.
And, despite the difficult period which Philippine mining has been going through recently with the blanket closure of half the country’s mines, there’s interest from the Russian side to invest in a nickel-ore processing plant in the Philippines.
Interest among Russian corporations wanting to enter the Philippine market is climbing fast. This was in evidence at two trade forums – one on Thursday in Moscow; the other on Friday in St Petersburg. At the Moscow event, held in the Four Seasons Hotel, representatives from around 90 Russian companies discussed possible ventures with some 200 Filipino businessmen.
All in all then, this trip lived up to its billing as a significant ground breaker and has opened the doors not just to the two countries’ respective markets, but to a deeper and warmer understanding on a range of areas where they can build strong partnerships. As Russia’s Deputy Minister for Economic Development, Alexander Tsybulskiy, put it: the Russian Federation, which is doing all it can to expand bilateral relations with the Philippines, hopes that the gathering in Moscow will be “a good beginning for long-term cooperation”.