Exploring the potential for a Russia-Philippine partnership and analyzing its wider geopolitical and strategic implications in the region.
By Uriel N. Galace
Uriel Galace is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, a think tank housed in the Republic of the Philippines's Department of Foreign Affairs. The views reflected in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.
Last January 2017, Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev held a press conference aboard a Russian warship docked in Manila Bay, during which he signaled that a new chapter had begun in Russia-Philippine relations. He declared, “Russia is ready to become a new reliable partner and close friend of the Philippines."1 This statement came on the heels of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s previous pronouncements expressing his desire for Manila to sever ties with the US and pursue closer ties with Beijing and Moscow.
Although on the surface these actions may appear to be the byproduct of the personal whims of the President, in reality, they reflect a strategic shift in the foreign policy of the Philippines and a convergence in the geopolitical interests of both Manila and Moscow.
The sentiment among policy analysts is that the Philippines, which has become increasingly alienated from its traditional allies due to Duterte’s violent crackdown on drugs, must diversify its network of partners by reaching out to new friends in order to hedge against the risk associated with relying on only a tiny handful of old allies. For its part, Russia, which itself has become increasingly isolated from the West, has only been too happy to expand its sphere of influence and accommodate Duterte’s desire for enhanced bilateral relations. This commentary will explore the potential for a Russia-Philippine partnership and analyze its wider geopolitical and strategic implications in the region.
Exploring the Potential for PH-Russia Relations
Manila and Moscow have traditionally suffered from an anemic partnership. On the one hand, the Philippines, being the US’s oldest Asian ally and staunchest partner in Southeast Asia, has historically veered away from pursuing close diplomatic ties with the Kremlin. On the other hand, Russia, whose traditional focus has been on the West, has had little incentive to venture into Asian affairs and get mired in the geopolitics of the region.
As of late, however, Russia has begun to recognize the advantages of spreading its influence eastward and further into the Asia-Pacific. In particular, the region’s economic dynamism presents Russia not only with a sizeable market of energy-hungry economies to which Russia can sell its energy and natural gas resources, but also allows Russia access to the vibrant manufacturing and innovation networks of East Asia.2
It is for this reason that Russian President Vladimir Putin has spearheaded a “March to the East” strategic realignment towards Asia, similar to former US President Barack Obama’s “Rebalance to Asia and the Pacific.”3 This strategy seeks to expand trade and investment relations with various developing countries in Asia and reassert Moscow’s military presence in the Western Pacific.4
Meanwhile, the Philippines’ motivation for pursuing stronger relations with Russia can be attributed primarily to Duterte’s desire to adopt an “independent foreign policy.” Under this view, Manila has become so enmeshed in Washington’s orbit that it has become a de facto vehicle for the global superpower to exercise its influence in the region without becoming directly involved in Asian affairs. For instance, the Philippines’s taking of China to court in The Hague—a move that was encouraged by America, publicly backed by America, and argued through American lawyers—can be interpreted by outside observers as an example of a maneuver in which the Philippines is the principal actor, but the US the underlying mastermind.
By pivoting away from Washington and towards nontraditional security partners such as Moscow, Manila stands to gain by diversifying its network of partners, as opposed to leaning excessively on a single one, as it has done throughout its recent history. In this way, the Philippines will be able to ensure foreign policy flexibility and rebalance its strategic commitments while reaping the gains from being friends with as many countries as possible. For these reasons, there is a strong mutual interest between the Philippines and Russia to enhance their bilateral relationship. The nature and extent to which this objective is realized could have far-reaching geostrategic consequences in the Asia-Pacific.
Analyzing the Geostrategic Implications of a PH-Russia Partnership
The Philippines and Russia had spent the past year ironing out the details of a new set of agreements for cooperation on defense, security, and energy, among other areas, which ultimately culminated in a bilateral summit between the two countries last May 2017, when Duterte visited Moscow—the first visit since Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, did so in 2012 for the APEC Summit in Vladivostok.5 Importantly, this visit came before a potential Duterte trip to the White House, a move that has huge symbolic meaning for Philippine foreign policy priorities.
One byproduct of Russia’s participation in Asia-Pacific affairs has been its growing entanglement in regional conflicts. Moscow has waded into the South China Sea dispute by selling arms to rival claimant states such as Vietnam and China. Furthermore, it has expressed a desire to hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea with other countries party to the dispute, such as China and Malaysia, along with the Philippines.6
Russia’s involvement in this dispute adds a vital new dimension to an already muddled conflict that involves as many as six claimant states. Moscow’s entrance into the Asia-Pacific could destabilize the balance of power in a region in which the US is widely viewed as the hegemon and China as its biggest competitor. Russia’s strategic maneuvers to strengthen military ties with countries that appear to be pivoting away from Washington can be interpreted as part of a broader series of moves to undermine US interests and challenge US hegemony in the region. In this way, the maritime dispute in the South China Sea could, in the worst case scenario, end up turning into a proxy conflict between Russia and the US down the line, much like the war in Syria, in addition to the ready potential for it to turn into a proxy conflict between China and the US.
For this reason, Manila must be careful not to allow its burgeoning relationship with Moscow to let it get caught in the middle of a great power struggle between the US and Russia, similar to what happened in March 2015 to Vietnam when it got caught in the crossfire between Washington and Moscow over the latter’s use of Cam Ranh Bay.7 In particular, Duterte must balance between the Philippines’ longstanding alliance with the US and enhancing bilateral ties with Russia. Doing so will be imperative towards securing the safety and interests of the nation that he governs.
In the end, there is a strong mutual strategic interest between the Philippines and Russia to enhance bilateral ties. For the former, it allows the diversification of its network of allies and the pursuit of an independent foreign policy. For the latter, it gives access to a sizeable market for selling its energy and military equipment, as well as an opportunity to pry one of Washington’s closest allies away from its ambit. The nascent Philippine-Russia bilateral relationship will definitely be one of the more important developments to monitor in the region going forward.
Lema, K. (2017). "Russia offers Philippines arms and close friendship." Reuters. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-russia-military-idUSKBN14O19W2
Heydarian, R. (2017). "Duterte’s Pivot to Putin." Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from https://amti.csis.org/duterte-pivot-putin/3
Galace, U. (2016). "In Retrospect: Assessing Obama’s Asia Rebalancing Strategy." Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from http://www.fsi.gov.ph/in-retrospect-assessing-obamas-asia-rebalancing-strategy/4
Heydarian, R. (2017). "Duterte’s Pivot to Putin." Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from https://amti.csis.org/duterte-pivot-putin/5
Rappler. (2012). "PNoy flies to Russia for APEC Summit." Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/11979-aquino-flies-to-russia-to-discuss-trade,-investment6
Lendon, B. (2017). "Why are Russian warships in Philippines?." CNN. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from http://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/03/asia/russia-philippines-exercises-south-china-sea/7
Parameswaran, P. (2017). "The Limits of Russia-Philippines Military Relations." The Diplomat. Retrieved 28 February 2017, from http://thediplomat.com/2017/01/the-limits-of-russia-philippines-military-relations/