Government News Analysis

On a day in May

Philippine and Russian diplomats are putting the finishing touches to the visit in May of President Rodrigo Duterte to Moscow. There he will meet once more with Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin. Their purpose will be to bolster mutual foreign affairs, trade and defence interests. No actual dates have been made public at this stage but we’re watching the calendar very closely.

May in Moscow is a big month. It kicks off on 1 May with the May Day parades – a huge carnival of workers, students and others that gathers in Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate Labour Day. This tradition which had been stopped in 1991 with the dismantling of the Soviet Union, was revived in 2014. Last year 100,000 people took part.

But the big May date is 9 May – the day Moscow and the entire Russian Federation commemorate the Allied victory on the Eastern Front and the surrender of Nazi Germany which cemented the end of World War II. This year marks the 72nd anniversary. 9 May is also a red-letter day for Duterte; it was on that day last year that he was elected president.

The Victory Day parade is the biggest military pageant on Earth. In it, Russia showcases its military hardware and its armed services. If Duterte is in the Russian capital on that day, that would be hugely significant. Being a state guest of the Russian president is one thing; being his guest on that day is quite another.

Whether or not Duterte’s visit coincides with Victory Day, however, it remains a major event. It will raise the tempo of the Russo-Philippine relationship and give it a global magnitude. After all, this is two heads of state – one representing a major world power, the other representing a fast-emerging regional power – creating what is virtually a new Asian nexus.

In short, this goes well beyond exporting bananas from plantations in Mindanao to the Russian market (important though that is); this has the potential for something far deeper; a redrawing of the geopolitics of East Asia – a place where Russia, up until now, has had relatively little influence.

Putin is well aware of the importance of the Philippines in the context of that part of the world. And the breakdown last year of Manila’s relationship with Washington – in the contemporary era, post Philippine independence from the US in 1946 – put a big enough crack in the chain that had bound the two together for him to open channels of communication through his Ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev. The ambassador didn’t waste any time either; within a week of Duterte’s election victory last May, Khovaev was sitting in Duterte’s house in Davao City discussing trade and other issues. All that’s proved productive.

For his part, Duterte is also aware of the strategic importance of the Philippines’ geography. He’s also cognizant of the fact that his country can benefit greatly from close cooperation with Russia at a time when his country is faced with a number of economic and social challenges – difficulties left unsolved by preceding administrations and to which, in some respects, the US relationship didn’t contribute very much in terms of solutions.

Forging a Russian connection is very doable. First, Moscow – traditionally a neutral force in his region – has no territorial interests in the South China Sea. Its nearest possessions are the Kuril Islands, above Hokkaido Island, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, north of Japan. Furthermore, its policy in the region is one of non-interference; it’s committed to not taking sides in regional disputes.

More importantly, its relations with East Asia’s main powers, China, Japan and South Korea, are all amicable. There’s no tension between Moscow and Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo – despite occasional rumblings over Russia’s occupancy of the four southernmost Kuril islands – or Moscow and Seoul. In the context of the Philippines’ close relationship with these three, this make bringing Moscow into the East Asia fold as a friend non-contentious.

This couldn’t have happened before Duterte. We’ll illustrate that. Imagine if under the old US regime – the just-passed administration of Barack Obama – Manila had wanted to pursue mutual defence interests with the Russian Federation; something that Duterte and Putin will definitely be doing. Not for a New York minute would Washington entertain such a move. Headmaster Obama would have called the errant schoolboy Duterte to his study in very quick time.

The substance of what now lies ahead in Moscow falls into two key categories – trade and defence cooperation. While some critics see the latter possibly as a euphemism for closer military ties, in all likelihood it will stop far short of that right now.

The Defence Cooperation Agreement currently being worked on – and which will almost certainly be signed by the two sides when Duterte’s in Moscow – deals primarily with personnel training and exchanges in information, intelligence and technology. At this stage there are no indications of it going deeper.

That said, areas of military cooperation will no doubt be explored. Whether this ultimately translates into staging joint military exercises, war games, remains to be seen. What the Russians may well push for, however, is visits to Philippine ports by warships of its Pacific fleet harboured in Vladivostok (photo), the biggest city in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Ocean’s largest port.

There’s already been three of these. The last was in January when the Russian anti-submarine destroyer, Admiral Tributs, and the tanker, Boris Butoma, dropped anchor in Manila South Harbor while on a week-long goodwill visit. Presumably part of that was to test the local temperature. Local reaction was positive, however, so this is looking increasingly likely.

Arms sales is another area that will be looked at in closer detail. The Philippines is well under-armed – particularly given the insurgencies currently being waged within its borders by the communists and by Islamic extremists, not to mention the war on drugs and piracy in the Sulu Sea. Furthermore, much of the Philippine arsenal is old and falls short of present-day standards. It needs an upgrade and fairly quickly.

An acquisition of small arms – rifles and machine guns – is likely, along with a consignment of sniper rifles, such as the Vzlomshik or the Vintorez, for use by special forces. Beyond that there could be bigger hardware being sought – drones, multi-purpose and attack helicopters, armoured vehicles and naval craft, even submarines.

Last week, Putin’s top security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council (which Putin chairs), was in Davao City along with Philippine Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana. And what that was about was hammering out the details of the Defence Cooperation Agreement.

A brief statement after the meeting revealed that the two sides had discussed ‘military technical cooperation’ as well as ‘law-enforcement cooperation’ – specifically, anti-piracy and anti-narcotics exercises by coast guard and police units. Also, Lorenzana told the media that Russia had invited the Philippines to be part of an information-sharing system that could help in tracking down Islamic terrorists and their financial resources; they also offered training for Duterte’s presidential guard, he said.

And so, if they’re down to that sort of detail, it looks like the Russo-Philippine defence cooperation agreement is nearly ready for the ink.

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