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Advent of an arms deal

Philippine Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, will be in Moscow next week doing some Christmas shopping. At the top of his list will be Russian-made sniper rifles – possibly the 10-round, semi-auto Dragunov SVD designated marksman rifle. There will be other pieces of kit on his list which is likely to be quite extensive. But he shouldn’t have much problem finding what he wants – Russia is the second biggest arms store on the planet, and right now the Philippines’ credit is good. In fact, given Russia’s keenness to supply President Rodrigo Duterte’s military with Russian-crafted weapons, Lorenzana might find he’s at a pre-Christmas sale.

In Moscow he will hold talks with Russian Federation Defence Minister, Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoygu. And while an arms contract will be front and centre of the discussions, the two men will also look at ways of deepening defence cooperation between their countries – not least in terms of Duterte’s two main battle fronts; the war on drugs and Islamic terrorism.

They’ll certainly want to make some progress on that, along with information sharing and possibly in initiating military-training programmes, but Russia is not looking for anything approaching a military alliance. That’s not how it operates in this region. It has close “strategic partnerships” with China, India and Vietnam and the chances are it would be delighted to enter into very similar arrangements with the Philippines.

That said, according to the Federation’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev – a close friend of Duterte’s and the driving force behind expanding Russo-Philippines ties – Russia supports the idea of “a new architecture of equal security for all regions and all nations”. And in that remark, somewhere, is a reference to the East’s growing frustration with Western attempts at world dominance through its governments and its support networks such as the UN – a situation about which Duterte has been very vocal. He favours a whole new counter-order centred on China, Russia and the Philippines.

And while Moscow is pursuing its “strategic partnership” with Manila – and reiterating its commitment to remaining out of the internal affairs of other countries – Khovaev has warned that “no other country should interfere with the relationship between the Philippines and Russia”.

Getting back to the supply of military hardware, a deal with Russia right now would be fortuitous. In early November, the US – the Philippines’ traditional supplier – halted an already negotiated sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police. The decision, taken by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, resulted from human-rights concerns expressed by Democrat Senator, Ben Cardin – a concern, incidentally, based on nothing more than hearsay.

The beauty of a Russian arms deal is that there wouldn’t be any “political conditionality”. In other words, unlike Washington, Moscow would not attach any adherence to human rights requirements. Or as Khovaev pitched it: “We do not use arms for political pressure. Business is business.” Touché!

What Russia is seeking, then, is long-term co-operation – building on the Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation which the two countries signed last year. In the current context, this includes not just the supply of weapons but the training of personnel, equipment maintainance, and, crucially, the transfer of technology and the building of a defence infrastructure.

Joining Lorenzana on this trip will be Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr., who, among other matters, will be paving the way for a Moscow visit from Duterte, tentatively scheduled for March or April next year. By then, the arms deal will have been done allowing the two sides to hammer out details of their defence cooperation pact. This will not involve any joint naval patrols in the South China Sea – Russia’s been very clear about that – but it will certainly look at how the Russians can improve enforcement capabilities and how it can ally itself with the Philippines to tackle both the drug gangs and the increasing threat from Islamic extremism in the region.

If Lorenzana comes away with his rifles and the other items on his list it will be one pressing problem less and he will be able to look forward to a Merry Christmas – or as they say in Russia, Schastlivogo Rozhdestva.


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