Philippines' Duterte open to joint naval drills with Russia
By Andreo Calonzo and David Tweed | Bloomberg | Published: January 5, 2017
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will consider joint naval exercises with Russia, his spokesman said Thursday, months after he decided to reduce military drills with the U.S.
At a briefing in the presidential palace, spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte saw this week's visit by two Russian warships to Manila as an opportunity to enhance friendship between the navies. Duterte, who in November approved recommendations to reduce and refocus joint naval exercises with U.S., is scheduled to visit one of the ships on Friday.
Since taking office six months ago, Duterte has repeatedly questioned his country's decades-old military alliance with the U.S. while seeking closer ties with China and Russia. He announced a "separation" from the U.S. last year after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, and said he might tell Russian President Vladimir Putin "there's three of us against the world."
Closer ties with the Philippines are in line with Putin's recent efforts to deepen economic, diplomatic and military relationships across Asia, said Alexey Muraviev, a Russia defense specialist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
"This relationship is potentially very significant given that fact that the Philippines was for a very long time the anchor of the U.S. military presence in the region," Muraviev said. He noted that the first informal meeting between Russia's defense minister and counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations took place in Moscow last April.
Russia may also be interested in getting naval access to Philippine ports, particularly the "highly symbolic" Subic Bay where the U.S. once had a base, Muraviev said. Russia's navy now regularly visits Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Changi Naval Base in Singapore as well as ports in Pakistan and the Seychelles.
A memorandum of agreement would need to be signed between the Philippines and Russia to establish the framework of any future naval drills, Abella said, citing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who visited Moscow last December. Abella said the Philippine president opposes the permanent stay of any foreign troops in his country.
Russia's ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, said Wednesday that his country was not interested in military ties with the Philippines. Still, he said, Russia would be willing to help supply small arms and light weapons, aircraft, helicopters and submarines if the Philippines needs them.
The State Department in November last year halted the sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines' national police after Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said he would oppose it over concerns about human rights violations. Duterte described those behind the decision as "fools" and "monkeys."
Should the Philippines need help funding any arms purchases, Russia may consider mechanisms similar to the $1 billion credit facility it provided to Indonesia for the purchase of Russian-made equipment in 2007, according to Muraviev.
"If the Philippine strategic direction is shifting or diversifying to also include Russia, Russia can do it," he said.