Unlike Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV) where Russia had made solid improvements and contributed to deeper economic and political cooperation, the Philippines is viewed to be opposite among its neighbors, in terms of the breadth and depth of bilateral relations with Russia – as the priorities are directed with its long-term ally, the United States. The enduring partnership and alliance between the Philippines and the United States showed reciprocity and gained mutual benefits in the areas of education, military and defense, humanitarian assistance, people-to-people exchanges, and trade. Because of this, some states are reluctant in engaging with the Philippines. This article provides a broader analysis by locating the place of the Philippines in Russia’s geopolitical and economic strategy in the Far East, which encompasses the greater Asia-Pacific region. Possible opportunities and considerations are also included in this article.
The Duterte Administration and Putin’s Far East Orientation and Ambitions
The Philippines considers with high importance the maintenance of the relations with its traditional partners emphasizing openness and dynamism. Though relations with non-traditional partners remained cordial, not much progress has been made in economic exchanges including advancements in political, military and defense cooperation. The current regional environment is favorable for the Philippine government to forge agreements that respond to these changes.
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has signaled a fresh move to establish friendly relations with other states, and anchored on an Independent Foreign Policy posture of the administration. The policy is intended to reduce the dependency with the United States; to foster closer relations with China as a means to normalize the tensions in the West Philippine Sea; and to expand ties with non-traditional partners such as India, Japan, and Russia.1 Such strategy allows the Philippines to gain the leverage in the region and the world. Despite President Duterte’s rhetoric including the backlash against his administration on the rise of human rights concerns, his leadership still maintained the grip and showed seriousness to enhance relations with Moscow.
Kremlin greatly welcomed the initiatives of the Philippine government, and showed sincerity with the view that it will be a channel to bolster its geoeconomic and political ambitions in Southeast Asia. Though Russia’s engagement in Southeast Asia is considered modest, it is still anemic. Kremlin has focused its partnership with China, and linking Japan and South Korea. Due to its rapid economic development, China has assumed the regional leadership role, where Russia considers it as an opportunity to develop the regions in the Far East. The newly established economic corridors will spur investments and will result to unprecedented levels of trade in the region. However, scholars have criticized Moscow’s apparent weakness and slow-paced agenda in the Far East, as financial resources are dwindling. This could hamper its ambitions, to provide effective and efficient public goods – the infrastructures needed, to drive growth for its innermost regions.
Despite the periods of deadlock, Moscow is much ready and serious about its strategy. Moscow will work to fast track economic and regional development of the target regions, focusing on economic integration at the same time build Russia’s profile in the Asia-Pacific, expanding in the areas of economic, commercial and strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).2
President Vladimir Putin also directed his administration to focus on the East or Sino-centric, mainly on the energy sector, scientific and technological driven trade, and technical cooperation. The strategy may prove to be “durable and substantive than the past iterations.” By linking towards the China corridor, Russia will now have direct access in Southeast Asia, and forging relations with them will be beneficial in the long-run perspective.
Philippines and Russia Diplomatic Relations
The official diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Russian Federation was formally established on June 2, 1976, and their respective embassies were opened in 1977. Following the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the responsibilities and obligations in the Agreement, which was assumed and taken by the Russian Federation, were recognized by the Philippine government on December 28, 1991.
As Russia transitioned its economic and political institutions along democratic lines, the ties that bind both states was never cut off. Kremlin and Manila enjoyed cordial and expanding relations throughout the years, and marked by high-level exchanges of visits and meetings. Highlight to this, President Putin met President Duterte on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit 2016; the Belt and Road Forum 2017; and the official visit of President Duterte to Russia on May 23, 2017. This is also reciprocated by high-level visits of Russian political leaders to Manila, to include Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the APEC Leaders’ Meeting 2015 and Deputy Minister for Economic Development Alexander V. Tsybulskiy for the Philippines-Russia Federation Joint Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation (JCTEC) 2017 meeting, to name a few.
Foreseen Challenges and Opportunities for Political and Economic Cooperation
Moscow started to calibrate its geostrategic plans in the Far East through the establishment of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East. The move could be advantageous for the Philippines in military, defense and security areas. Russia is also willing to offer small arms sale such as rifles, grenade launchers and related weapons. President Putin’s donation of military equipment signaled the strong interest of Moscow with Manila. The donation included Kalashnikov assault rifles, ammunition, army trucks and steel helmets. Likewise, Russian warships have paid courtesy port calls in Manila since early 2017. The Philippines also eyes the possibility to purchase submarines and military equipment in Russia.
However, the recent initiatives and actions taken by Manila were questioned by Washington. Under the Russian-sanctions legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2017, clearly sets the policy that “any country purchasing weapons from sanctioned Russian defense and intelligence organizations faces potential penalties from the United States.” The law was designed to punish Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the intervention in the Syrian Civil War in 2015, and the meddling in the United States presidential elections in 2016. In response, the United States Defense Department sent a Delegation to remind the Philippines of her provisions of the needed assistance in military, defense and intelligence matters. The Philippine government reiterated that it does not only intend to procure military assets in Russia but considers other potential partners.
Meanwhile, Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor Khovaev, in his interview at the Chiefs, explained that Russia has “no intention to inflict any damage to a close relationship of the Philippines with [its] traditional allies and partners.” Moreover, Prime Minister Medvedev also stated that “We are ready to expand our political, economic, and cultural ties, as well as our cooperation in fighting terrorism through arms supply…This is a new chapter in our relationship, and no doubt we will keep standing by your side.” The Philippines has signed a total of nine agreements with Russia in late 2017 involving extradition, transportation, nuclear energy, mass communication, higher education and science, and intellectual property.
The Philippines will largely benefit in the area of economic cooperation particularly in trade and people-to-people exchanges. After the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in 2016, Russia has agreed “to export non-GMO meat products and will increase imports of Philippine agricultural products from its current commitment of $46 million to $2.5 billion per year.” The Department of Trade and Industry held discussions to strengthen two-way bilateral relations in areas of agriculture, industry, energy, manufacturing, infrastructure, transport, tourism, science and nuclear technology, labor and higher education (2017 Co-Chairs’ Meeting of the Philippines-Russia JCTEC).
Russian scholars argue that the Philippines could be the key in Moscow’s ambitions to forge a free trade agreement between the EAEU and the ASEAN bloc. Regional economic integration may offer help to raise EAEU’s investment and growth profile in the Asia-Pacific. The EAEU is an inter-regional cooperation whose objective is to remove trade barriers among member states. This might also lead the way for Russia to enter into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. Global economic slowdown and fluctuations could trigger risks for Russia to fully open its borders for trade in the Asia-Pacific. Moscow should review its policy agenda for it to become competitive in the long-run.
Prospects and Considerations
It will be a long way to go for both the Philippines and Russia to reach the expected levels of an enhanced political and economic relations. It is likely that they have understand each other’s soft spots. The current policy agenda of both countries have paved the way for renewed commitments spanning key industries and sectors, as starting point for a robust partnership. To maintain the rapport of this budding relationship, it is necessary to be more open to each other’s differences. This also calls for the seriousness to carry out the agreed areas of cooperation. For now, Moscow considered Manila as her apple of eye, it has a unique position in Southeast Asia that will act as a channel that may eventually satisfy her interests over the region.
**The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of both the Philippine government and the academic institutions where he is currently affiliated.
1 Personal interview with the Philippine Ambassador to People’s Republic of China, H.E. Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, October 5, 2017
2 Caballero, K. and Paderon, M.M., 2017. Beyond the Russian Far East: Russia's turn to Southeast Asia and the areas of cooperation, Scholar Summit 2017 Proceedings (pp. 829-839). ISBN: 978-979-8972-87-4. Indonesia: Universitas Indonesia