Government News Analysis

Sea change in Manila

Yesterday, just 17 days before Barack Obama steps down as US president, two Russian Federation Navy ships docked at Manila South Harbor. They’re on a “goodwill visit” and will remain there for four days. But this is more than a courtesy port call; this is a clear message from Moscow to Washington that it’s moving in on what the US had long regarded as its territory in a region that just over a handful of months ago had held such long-term promise.

East Asia was to have been the strategic base to which the US would pivot – away from Europe and the Middle East – to facilitate its ambitious Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc that would stretch around the Pacific Rim, and to keep China in check by curtailing its adventures in the South China Sea. The Philippines was integral to that plan, but following bitter exchanges between US officials and Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte – stemming from Obama’s public criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs – the new administration in Manila recalibrated its foreign policy, swinging the compass from West to East.

After four years of rancorous relations between the former government of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and China, Duterte restored his country’s relations with Beijing. The equally rancorous relations between Duterte and Obama then provided the catalyst for Duterte to put two US military agreements with the Philippines on notice – and declare that his country would be pursuing an independent foreign policy; virtually closing the chapter on a long history of Philippine territorial subservience to the US.

Two major military exercises – one, the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training; the other, the Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercises – were jettisoned by Duterte while the scope of the annual 10-day Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) war games was reduced.

Meanwhile, Moscow saw the opportunity which the US-Philippines rift had presented, seized it, and through its ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, made early overtures to the Philippine president, establishing its credentials as a partner nation – one, like China (and unlike the US) that would not trespass on the internal affairs of a sovereign state; much less dictate its foreign-relations requirements. In October, Duterte intimated that he was open to staging land and sea military manoeuvres with the Russians – after the US, Russia has the largest navy in the world, followed by Philippine allies, China and Japan.

The fact is that this port visit by the large 6,930-ton Udaloy-class anti-submarine warfare destroyer, Admiral Tributs (pictured above), and bulk carrier, Boris Butoma, a replenishment oiler – both vessels from the Russian Federation’s Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok, Russia’s largest Pacific port – has huge significance. It is the culmination of nearly eight months of quiet diplomacy between the foreign ministries of both countries. And so, as America seems to have burned its boats, it looks like Russia’s ship is coming in.

(In September, Admiral Tributs, was one of a number of Russian warship that took part in eight days of joint naval exercises conducted in the South China Sea with vessels from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy).

But this is not the first time that a Russian warship has docked in the Philippines; in 2012, another Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer, the Pacific Fleet’s Admiral Panteleyev, arrived in Manila Port from Vladivostok. In May this year, Pacific Fleet vessel, the hydrographic survey ship, Marshal Gelvoni, motored into Manila Bay.

But the present Russian visit is quite different to any that have gone before. This one is more high profile – heading the Russian naval delegation is the Deputy Commander of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov. Furthermore, unlike previous visits by Russian Federation vessels, this time there will be navy-to-navy interaction with members of the Russian Navy and the Philippine Navy engaging in “goodwill games”. The Russian crews will attend both welcome and farewell ceremonies staged by Philippine Navy personnel headed by Philippine Navy Commadore, Francisco Cabudao. Admiral Tributs marines, meanwhile, will showcase their ship’s weapons capabilities and tactics and have brought with them a large amount of equipment for the demonstrations; later the Russian ships’ companies will be given a tour of World War II sites in Manila and Cavite Province.

Mikhailov has expressed interest in joint marine exercises with the Philippines, explaining that similar drills and training are being conducted by Russia with the Indonesian Navy. Combating terrorism and piracy are the main objectives, he said.

This, then, is no mundane port stopover to refuel, resupply and relax; this is bonding navy-style – and it signals closer military ties between the two nations. For Washington, the wound left by Duterte’s geopolitical shift to Beijing is still raw. This will rub sea salt in it.

And it all comes as the Russian and Philippine defence ministries discuss potential arms deals – Moscow is offering to sell sniper rifles, drones, other military hardware and even a submarine to Manila – and as their respective foreign ministries lay plans for Duterte to visit the Russian capital in April or May to meet with Obama’s arch-nemesis, Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

What’s materialising, then, is the East Asian nexus of China, Russia and the Philippines which Duterte alluded to during his state visit to Beijing in October. And ironically what’s made that the likely outcome has been America’s – in fact, Obama’s – navel gazing; his preoccupation with US interests to the exclusion of Philippine self-determination which Duterte promised the Filipino people throughout his presidential campaign.

Obama recklessly overplayed his hand as far as his country’s authority over the Philippines was concerned and seriously underestimated Duterte’s pledge to his people that the Philippines would be the master of its own destiny and no longer be a pawn of America’s political machinations in the Far East. It marks the end of a catalogue of US foreign-policy failures on Obama’s watch and ranks among the biggest of them.

For the Philippines, however, Obama’s crass – or at best – clumsy handling of relations with Manila is likely to be a blessing in disguise. It’s raised the country’s international profile and swept it into solid alliances which, economically (through bilateral trade), and militarily (through cooperation agreements) have greatly enlarged the Philippines stature as an international player. No longer at the whim of its former US landlord, it’s now able to call the shots and pursue its own overseas interests. And for that, oddly perhaps, Duterte should thank Obama.

But as Obama – we predict, less than graciously – hands over the helm to incoming US President, Donald Trump, another very different chapter in US-Philippine relations is likely to unfold. This will be firmly anchored in trade and investment and will bear little resemblance to the US State Department schemes of the past. Any effort to restore the old status quo would be futile – though there are those in the Philippine Liberal Party who cling to that dream. The reality is that ship has already sailed.  The Filipino people want more than that; they want finally to be masters of their own ship.

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