Government News Analysis

Russia plays her cards

Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines

Military ties between Manila and Moscow have been getting tighter – and this week they’ll get even more so when the two governments sign a security deal on military logistics. That will happen when the countries’ respective defence ministers – the Philippines’ Delfin Lorenzana and Russia’s Sergei Shoigu – meet in Clark, Pampanga today and tomorrow for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gathering. The occasion is the 11th Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the 4th ADMM-Plus to which Shoigu has been invited.

This deal is the culmination of months of talks and is being seen by the Philippine military establishment as a sound basis for cooperation with the Russian Federation, the world’s second strongest military power – a country with an active frontline force of around 800,000 personnel; some 15,500 tanks, around 3,500 aircraft, 55 submarines and a 2016 military budget of US$69.2 billion. The assistance it can give to the Philippines is immeasurable.

In concrete terms, that assistance has already started – on Friday, three Russian warships and two anti-sub vessels docked at the Port of Manila and offloaded a cache of weapons and military vehicles. All donated by the Russian Government, they’re a goodwill gesture – from Russia with love – for the new defence relationship. The cargo included 20 trucks, 500 assault rifles and 1 million rounds of ammunition. On Saturday two more Russian ships arrived at Subic Bay, close to Clark.

It’s likely that a Russian Navy presence will become increasingly common at Philippine ports after the logistics pact has been signed. Up until now there have been just odd visits from ships of Russia’s large Pacific Fleet berthed at Vladivostok, 1,800 nautical miles northeast of Manila. In fact, Friday’s arrival was only the fourth visit by the Russian Navy.

The first was in January 2012, followed by a visit in May 2016 just prior to the election that brought Rodrigo Duterte to power. On 3 January this year, the Admiral Tributs, an 8,200-ton anti-submarine Udaloy-class destroyer, tied up at Manila South Harbour and welcomed President Duterte (photo, right), aboard for a tour of the vessel. Sea change in Manila

This relationship, meanwhile, looks destined to get deeper. Next month, Russian President, Vladimir Putin (photo, left), will be represented at the East Asia Summit – an annual Asean get-together of world leaders, this year being held in Angeles City, Pampanga – by Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

Perhaps this year however, more than most, a Philippine president will be among the most sought after state heads at the summit. But that’s not because he’s the 2017 Asean chair; it’s because this year, more than most, the geo-politics of East Asia has taken on a heightened significance.

There are four countries of particular note in this context – Russia, China, Japan, and last but by no means least, America. All four will want to get close to Duterte. Medvedev, Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and US top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, will be doing that in Angeles City.

All five men understand the importance of the Philippines in the context of today and the future. Thus, all four visitors will want to cement good relations with the Philippine head of state. That’s why none of the leaders of these countries – Putin, Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump – have ever criticised Duterte over his War on Drugs. By contrast, other world leaders – particularly those in Europe – take every opportunity to do just that. In fact, the reverse – they’ve either expressed their support for his campaign or ignored it as irrelevant.

Last October, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, praised Duterte for “rolling out policies to ensure social order and public security”. The two sides, she said, were in close communication to cooperate on drug-control and anti-crime issues. In May, according to a leaked transcript of a telephone conversation between the US and Philippine presidents, Trump praised Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” with his illegal-drugs campaign.

Meanwhile, Abe has pledged: “On countering illegal drugs, we want to work together with the Philippines through relevant measures of support”. Putin has never once mentioned the issue; in fact for him it’s not an issue.

Geo-politics is about spheres of influence and the balance of power. It’s a tricky business involving everything from diplomacy to bribery; concessions to sanctions; easing restrictions to applying pressures.

It’s about establishing political power in a geographical space – and that space, perhaps more than any on the planet, where world powers seek to stake their claim right now is East Asia, at the crossroads of which sits the Philippines. The archipelago’s geography, then, is a huge asset which Duterte can capitalise on. And he should.

But what’s made it even more attractive is the vacuum created by Duterte when he essentially told the previous president of the US, Barack Obama, that the US could no longer take the Philippines for granted as a strategic partner of Washington.

That, of course, was the price America has paid for Obama’s crass involvement in the Philippines’ internal affairs – to wit, Obama’s criticism of Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign. That virtually put the skids under a seven-decades-long relationship between the two countries. It was a high price to pay for a piece of political showboating but what it’s done is to put the Philippines in play.

However, Obama’s gone and Trump will certainly do better with Duterte. That said, he’s up against some stiff competition in this courtship. Japan is the Philippines’ closest and oldest strategic partner; they have strong ties in everything, including defence. China is the Philippines’ newest partner, but that relationship has developed quickly and promises huge economic gains in terms of investment and trade.

Meanwhile, Russia is the Philippines’ next large prospective partner and Duterte has been receiving overtures from the Russian Government from the moment he won the election – in fact just before, when it looked like he was going to win. Again, investment, trade and all-important security and defence pacts are being offered.

In all this, the US is in the most difficult position – it was easy for Trump’s predecessors; in the past Manila was just told where to sign. Trump now has to deal like everyone else. There’s no question that he and Duterte get on – in many ways they’re in the same mould. They’re both pragmatists, deal makers and unapologetically nationalists. Like Putin, they both enjoy massive popular support from their people.

But Abe is the only one – in fact, the only world leader – whose been hosted by Duterte at his home in Davao City. The Philippine president has described Japan as “a special friend who is closer than a brother” and “a friend unlike any other”. He describes Xi as a “great leader” and Putin as his “favourite hero”. Furthermore, Duterte has met these three and spent time with them. He has not yet had a face-to-face meeting with Trump.

That, however, will be remedied next month when Trump visits Manila to attend the gala celebration of Asean’s 50th anniversary on 12 November, and the Asean-US Summit, the following day. Both events are being held at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City.

Duterte, however – post Obama at least – has never looked like he’s been playing the powers off against each other. In fact, it was he who suggested a China-Russia-Philippine nexus. Moreover, while the Philippine-Japan relationship is virtually cast in stone, since the departure of Obama, Manila-Washington ties have got considerably warmer.

But Trump’s hand in this game of geo-politics is the weakest by far – not because he doesn’t know how to play it, but because he’s been given the weakest cards. All the players’ hands contain trade, investment and defence-agreement cards, but Trump’s also been dealt a “joker” by the US Democratic Party and its allies back home.

That joker is the human-rights card which Trump won’t play but which will be played for him by his political enemies in the US Congress and their friends in the US mainstream media. China and Russia – also large targets of that anti-Trump faction – will welcome that play as it will further strengthen their hands. It’ll also bring a loose China-Russia-Philippine triumvirate a few steps closer to reality. Russia’s strong non-interventionist Asia policy will also help in that respect.

For Japan, meanwhile, that card will make no difference. For the US, though, the geo-politics pot will have been pushed further out of reach.

For Trump personally, a shrinking US sphere of influence in East Asia is of less importance to handling more pressing regional issues – and at the top of that agenda will be the nuclear threat from North Korea. That will be a big talking point both at and on the fringes of the East Asia Summit and the Asean-US Summit.

The fact remains though; America’s clout in this region is unlikely to rise. Duterte, probably more than any other president, has affirmed the sovereignty of the Philippines. For him it’s sacrosanct; off-limits. But he’s also shown that he’s far from an isolationist and will continue to build relationships – those based on mutual respect – with other world powers.

Putin and his foreign-policy architects in Moscow’s Smolenskaya Square read all that; they know well how to play this game, and they’re not hampered by critics at home either. Putin will make the most of his time at the summit in developing the Russo-Philippine relationship and he’s unlikely to be drawn on North Korea for which Russia along with China has its own plans. And anyway, as the Russian proverb warns: “If you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one”.

And so the defence-logistics deal that’s to be signed by Manila and Moscow – either today or tomorrow – is likely to be the first of many agreements between these two nations. Bottom line – the Philippines’ geo-political East Asia currency rises further in value while that of the US fails to strengthen.

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