Duterte’s Distinct Diplomatic Dancing

Mr. Duterte and Mr. Putin have been deepening their cooperation, as illustrated with recent Russian naval visits in mid-April. (Russian Government)

Manilla looks towards new alliances in the Asia-Pacific, as it seeks to diversify its defence and diplomatic relationships away from Washington DC.

The Philippines’ have long been subjected to foreign involvement and intervention from being a formal Spanish colony to being occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War. However, the most significant of their foreign ties is arguably their relationship with the United States. After being made a US territory in 1898, the Americans oversaw an ‘Insular Government’ for almost 30 years following a conflict with local revolutionaries in 1902. Since the Philippines’ independence in July 1946, their relationship has fluctuated with the US providing security assistance and military training but also facing significant popular domestic opposition. For example, American airbases were shut down in 1992 and US Marines have been implicated in a 2005 rape case and the 2014 killing of a transgender woman.

As such, it may not be such a surprise to see Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte favouring closer ties with the traditional rivals of the United States, notably Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, despite Manilla’s Defence Cooperation agreement with the US in 2014, Mr. Duterte has pursued much closer relations with these powers and has even appeared to publicly insult the former US ambassador as well as former President Barack Obama. According to media reports, the Philippines have agreed deals with the PRC worth $24 billion dollars and the latter has offered to help build large-scale infrastructure projects such as railways across the Philippines.

Russia meanwhile is also becoming involved militarily and economically with the South East Asian island nation. In mid-April, Russian naval vessels (The cruiser Varyag, accompanied by the oiler Pechenge) visited the Philippines for training exercises with the Filipino Navy on a four-day goodwill visit to the Philippines; the second such visit by Russian warships in the last three months. Their previous visit came in January, soon after the Russian ambassador stated his country was ready to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons and become close allies. Captain Lued Lincuna, director of the Philippine Navy’s public affairs told the media that the Philippines hoped to learn from the Russians during training exercises which may include demonstrations of advanced equipment and weaponry. On the other side of this partnership, Russian commander Captain Alexsei Ulyanenko said the port call would make a “significant contribution” to strengthening relations and maintaining stability in the region. Thus, it would seem that Russia may gradually replace the US’ position vis-à-vis the Philippines. In terms of economic cooperation, discussions were held in January to strengthen mutual trade and investment. According to the Filipino Department of Trade and Industry, these areas of cooperation included agriculture, industry, energy, manufacturing, infrastructure, transport, tourism, science and nuclear technology, labour and higher education.

It is clear then that Mr. Duterte is taking the Philippines in a different direction and will seemingly continue doing so for the foreseeable future. He has hinted the Philippines may buy arms from Russia if the US blocks the trade of such goods and he is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss future defence agreements. Thus, with the Filipino Ministry of Defence also investigating how to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, sniper rifles and helicopters from the Russians, Mr. Trump may soon have to turn his attention towards the Philippines while the crisis involving ballistic missile tests in the DPRK continues to absorb the President’s attention.