Government News Analysis

Pieces on the board in Peru

Before the weekend is over, the chances are that a historic meeting will have taken place at the western edge of the world. It will be private, low-key and the most we’ll probably learn about it is that it was cordial and that the two men taking part in it enjoyed each other’s company and got along very well. But what it might lack in reportable substance, it will more than make up for in powerful symbolism; for this modest meeting could be the first step in forging an alliance that will send shudders throughout Western governments and around the world’s diplomatic institutions.

That meeting will take place in Peru between Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, and Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin – two leaders of sovereign states whom their Western counterparts despise and mistrust. And that last fact is what will make this meeting all the sweeter for these two men.

Both are in the Peruvian capital, Lima, ostensibly, for the annual gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and will be attending the Apec Economic Leaders’ Meeting along with the government heads of 19 other Pacific Rim nations. But as with all forums of this scale, little is usually achieved in the large open conference sessions – the things that really matter invariably take place on the fringes and off the itinerary. And this is a thing that really matters. For both these men.

And here’s why. For Duterte it will allow him to underscore his intent to free his country from seeming wholly dependent on America by continuing to pursue an independent foreign policy of his choosing. And given his dislike for what he perceives as US hegemony – particularly in East Asia – the Russian Federation is a perfect fit. Russia is the flip side of the coin to America, and right now – while President Barack Obama is still in the White House, that’s very appealing. Duterte and Obama have had a volatile relationship stemming from the US president’s criticism of Duterte over his war on drugs.

For Putin, it’s simple chess – he stands to gain his enemy’s lost pawn and, given his own dislike of Obama, he will relish the difficulties which this added dimension will lend to America’s efforts to boost its sphere of influence in East and Southeast Asia. A political chess game has been going on between Obama and Putin since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Ideologically, the Russian and Philippine presidents are well suited. They both believe in strong leadership; they both enjoy extremely high approval ratings in their own countries; they both have little respect for the present administration in Washington; they both oppose the “One World Order” being promoted, in their view, by Western powers and their international agencies – the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisations and others.

They are, in a phrase, fellow travelers. Each knows that about the other, instinctively. They don’t need this meeting to confirm it. They need it to present to the world a declaration of intent – Duterte, to shake further loose from the US-Philippines “special relationship,” and to be seen to be doing; Putin to up the ante in his war of nerves with Washington. It is what the American’s would call – though not in this case – a win-win. Actually what they’d probably call it is a bitch slap – a mortal enemy and a squandered friend teaming up as Washington looks on, unable to conceal its impotence.

Moscow’s interest in Southeast Asia is undeniable and Manila’s strong credentials as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the East Asia Summit, and Apec will look very attractive to the foreign-policy planners in Smolenskaya Square. As Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has remarked: “The Philippines has a lot of potential as Russia’s partner in the Asia region”.

Although the two presidents have never met there has been contact. Just a week after Duterte was elected, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, flew to Davao City for a private chat. He said later that the meeting had been very productive and that their discussions would jumpstart a better relationship between their countries. They had agreed to pursue bilateral cooperation in a number of areas – among them trade, which, according to the Russian envoy, would make progress before the end of the year.

In early September at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos, following a tiff with Obama whom Duterte was meant to be seated next to at the gala dinner, the seating arrangements were changed whereby Duterte ended up seated next to Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev. And we’re fairly sure they found more to talk about than the quality of the shrimp.

And just before leaving for Lima, Duterte had another “long talk” with Ambassador Khovaev in which he expressed his desire to meet Putin, explaining, “I want to be friends with him. I just want the two countries to be the best of friends,” adding that he is open to improving trade ties with Russia. But he also refloated his idea for a “new order” – one led by China and Russia – which, if it happened, he would be “the first to join,” and taking the Philippines out of the UN.

While this would be a blessed union for Duterte, for Washington it would be nothing short of an unholy alliance, and one that could virtually scupper its influence in the region; despite its close ties with Japan and South Korea.

First, though, let’s wait and see what Lima produces.

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