A toy maker shows miniature dolls of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) and US President Donald Trump in Manila on June 8, 2018. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was given the red carpet treatment during a recently concluded five-day visit to Russia, underscoring the two sides’ budding economic and strategic ties.

While counterterrorism, defense and trade all featured prominently on the diplomatic agenda, discussions of possible Russian energy exploration in the South China Sea sent a strong signal to China, while mooted big arms deals aimed a shot across the US’s bow.

By forging closer ties with Russia, Duterte is seeking to recalibrate the Philippines’ diplomacy vis-à-vis China, a maritime rival and threat, and America, a long-time treaty ally which has nonetheless sharply criticized his government’s human rights record.

Philippine-Russia relations now seem set to pick up speed after an earlier stuttered start. Duterte’s previous trip to Russia, the first by a Filipino leader in recent memory, was truncated by a domestic crisis, when Islamic State-affiliated militants laid siege to Marawi city in May 2017.

This time, however, Duterte aimed to get the most out of his five-day visit, which included a big stage event at Sochi, the Black Sea resort town that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

As a guest of honor at the 6th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Russia’s equivalent of the World Economic Forum, Duterte criticized the Philippines’ traditional US-centric foreign policy as an “oversight of strategic proportion.” He said that emphasis foolishly left Russia “in the margins” of the country’s diplomacy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their meeting at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi on October 3, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev

In a speech, he called for a “challenge” to the US-dominated global order, though the leader stopped short of declaring a formal break with his country’s long-time strategic ally.

“Let me be very clear: I am not against the United States and, or, the West. The US is a close friend of the Philippines, in fact, our only treaty ally,” Duterte said, hedging against full ideological alignment with Russia over America.

“In the remaining three years of my term, we will likewise expand the horizon of Philippine diplomacy by deepening our engagement in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia,” the Filipino president declared, with Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Azerbaijan President Heydar Oglu Aliyev in the audience.

At a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin commended Duterte’s liberation of Marawi from Islamic State-aligned militants, as well as his government’s efforts at “strengthening the potential of your security bodies.”

“We are prepared to develop our partnership when it comes to countering terrorism and share our experience and all the developments,” Putin told Duterte. Both leaders oversaw massive destruction of urban areas during their respective counterinsurgency campaigns against Muslim militants.

Much of central Marawi, now referred to as “ground zero” of the siege, still lies in complete ruins, eerily reminiscent of Russia’s campaign in Chechnya which razed cities like Grozny to the ground.

Both the Philippines and Russia are known to be troubled by the possibility of Islamic Chechen fighters joining Islamic State-affiliated groups in Southeast Asia, many of which are active in the southern Philippines.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives a pep talk to troops fighting Islamic State-aligned militants in Marawi, Philippines August 24, 2017. Photo: Presidential Palace/Handout

Russia offered military assistance including armored vehicles and assault rifles, as well as advanced intelligence-sharing and joint military exercises, during the months-long Marawi crisis.

In his Sochi speech, Duterte emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation, since “[i]t is imperative to sustain these consultative dialogues and enhance our mechanism to further strengthen the foundation of our growing relationships.

“I am therefore happy with this opportunity to continue our dialogue with the view of identifying vital areas of cooperation which where we should concentrate our efforts in the coming years,” the Filipino leader added.

That apparently will include big arms deals. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is set to procure 16 MI-17 medium-lift Russian helicopters worth US$14.7 million, and will also reportedly explore the purchase of Russian tanks, multi-role fighters, warships and transport and attack helicopters.

The Philippines is also reportedly contemplating the purchase of Russian-made kilo-class submarines, a potential multi-billion dollar deal which would enhance the country’s maritime deterrence vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea.

“They will give us a catalog of their products for our consideration,” according to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has made multiple visits to Europe, including Russia, to explore advanced weapons acquisitions.

Under their 2017 Agreement on Defense Cooperation (ADC), the Philippines and Russia are also exploring long-term defense cooperation.

Russia’s Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov (R) guides Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) onboard the Russian anti-submarine navy ship Admiral Tributs in Manila, January 6, 2017. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

“Just tell us what you need. We are here ready to help. What we can assure you, if you are going to procure military equipment for us, we are going to give you brand new ones and not second hand,” a senior Russian embassy official in Manila said last month following the appointment of its first defense attaché.

The reference to “second hand” equipment was a not-so-thinly veiled jab at the US, which has sent used equipment, including naval vessels, at discount rates to the Philippines in recent years.

Duterte and his Russian counterparts also discussed how to enhance bilateral trade and investment. At a speech at the Philippines-Russia Business Forum in Moscow, Duterte called on Russian industrialists to invest in his ambitious infrastructure development program.

“I invite you to participate in the massive Build, Build, Build infrastructure program, especially in transport and railway construction where Russia has high expertise,” Duterte said, while claiming “investors have shown a strong trust and confidence” in his administration.

He offered “competitive fiscal and non-fiscal incentives” to Russian investors, including a 30% corporate earning tax holiday from four to six years from the start of their operations in the Philippines.

Bilateral trade is still anemic but more than doubled last year from $568 million in 2017 to $1.36 billion in 2018. Duterte said he hopes to welcome more Russian investment, including in the crucial energy sector.

Rosneft’s logo is seen during The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum’ (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, June 7, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Andolu Agency/Sefa Karacan

Specifically, he invited Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, to explore projects in the Philippines, potentially in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has made similar efforts in recent years, soliciting Russian help in developing offshore energy resources to ward off China, which also has warm ties with Moscow.

There are few indications that the Philippines is concerned about the Western sanctions imposed against Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

Moscow, meanwhile, seems intent on deepening strategic ties with Southeast Asian countries, including those which are worried by China’s maritime assertiveness.

This way, Russia not only expands business opportunities in its nearby Far East, but also regains a strategic footprint in a region where it historically held huge sway, especially during the Cold War.

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