Two presidents, one goal. They came; they met – providing possibly the second-biggest story to come out of the otherwise dry Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum being held in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, delivered their long-expected meeting as they sat and talked and told the world that the relationship is on. In Washington and Brussels, meanwhile, concern levels will have jumped to new highs; for this emerging pact has global ramifications for both the US and for Europe, and for the US in particular it was the last optic it wanted to see.
Well staged, this wasn’t a brief chat, snatched between sessions at the Apec gathering – the substance of the forum’s biggest news story: the 90-odd seconds US President Barack Obama spent with Putin standing in the aisle of the conference chamber as delegates struggled past to get to their seats. Not so much a meeting, more an awkward moment. The Putin-Duterte get-together was a full-blown summit in a private conference space – with the flags of both countries as a backdrop – that went on for the best part of an hour. This was diplomacy optics big league.
For Duterte, this meeting was the main reason for being in Peru. If truth be known, it was probably one of the main reasons for Putin being there also. International talking shops are not their preferred beat; they favour sharply focused bi-lateral engagements where issues can be more freely discussed and resolution achieved. And while their bi-lateral rendezvous in Lima produced some clear results – Putin’s invitation to Duterte to make a state visit to Russia, for one thing – what it really achieved was to put an end to the speculation over Duterte’s foreign-policy aspirations. Manila and Moscow are aligning. That part of the deal is done.
This meeting, to bring together the head of the Russian Federation with the head of what federalist Duterte hopes will become the Philippine Federation, has been in the works since early May when the Russian Ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, flew to Davao City to congratulate Duterte on his presidential victory. There was nothing spontaneous about it; it had been the subject of a great deal of planning.
There’s no question that the two men got on well together. After Duterte explained his serious misgivings over the actions of Western powers, Putin responded with “Our assessments coincide in many respects”. They commended each other on their firm leadership style and looked forward to bringing their countries into closer orbit.
“Well, you have been able to do a lot in a short period of time in terms of developing all round partnership between our countries and with respect to promoting greater trust and confidence between us,” Putin told Duterte, expressing his hope that ties between their countries could quickly advance further.
Naturally, there has been some veiled criticism of what took place in Lima, including from the domestic press. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, for example, ran a story entitled “Duterte to Putin: PH longing to be part of Europe”. In it, the writer, DJ Yap, started off with “Goodbye Asia. Hello Europe?” and then proceeded to question Duterte’s apparent change of mind. “Longing to be part of Europe” he referred to as a “bizarre turn of phrase … Mr Duterte, who had long expressed disdain for the European Union, inexplicably remarked that he wished his country to be a part of Europe”.
Let’s clear this up for Mr Yap and ease his evident confusion by familiarising him with the geography and the political structure of Europe. First Europe is the geographical designation of a continent. Part of the Russian Federation – around 25% of it, in fact everything west of the Ural mountains – is in Europe and, as such is a European country. However, much to Mr Yap’s evident consternation, Russia is not a member of the European Union (EU) which is an economic/political grouping comprising a number of European states. Indeed, Putin himself has serious differences with the EU.
Thus, what President Duterte was saying was that he wants to be a part of Europe. He has no more interest in joining the EU than Putin does – and anyway he couldn’t. Membership is reserved for countries geographically located in Europe which the Philippines plainly isn’t. His goal is trade, and not least with European Russia which supports 77% of the population of the entire Russian Federation. This is a massive area covering 1.5 million square miles – incidentally, the largest country in Europe – which has huge potential for Philippine exports. That’s why he wants to join Europe.
In fact he told Putin just that: “… despite the distance, we have been longing to be part of Europe, especially in commerce and trade around the world”.
Returning to the events in Lima, the solid groundwork for a strong partnership between Moscow and Manila has now been done. What we wait to see is how the flesh will be put on the bones. Trade deals will provide much of that but almost inevitably there will be a military component. What Russia might want is docking facilities for its Pacific Fleet in Philippine waters. If that happens, then concern levels in Washington will take another upward leap. And a big one.