U.S.-Philippines Breakup, Russia-Philippines Makeup

For almost a century, the United States has maintained a presence in the Philippines, developing extensive military, economic, and political ties with the island nation. However, this longstanding relationship could be at risk with the ascension of the hardline nationalist Rodrigo Duterte to the office of the presidency. Even a shared affinity between him and U.S. President Donald Trump may not be enough to keep the Philippines from seeking closer ties with other states, namely the Russian Federation. 

President Rodrigo Duterte has created significant changes within a short period of time as President of the Philippines. The U.S government has questioned President Duterte’s methods in his so-called “War against Drugs,” perceived by the international community to be a source of major human rights violations. President Duterte on the other hand has accused the U.S government of interfering too much in the political and social affairs of the Philippines as well as other countries. This has led President Duterte to distance himself from the U.S while improving relations with other allies such as China and Russia.

United States – Philippines

Duterte’s administration appears to pushing a major change in foreign policy with the Philippines slow separating from its longtime ally, the U.S. The U.S under the Obama Administration was openly critical of the Philippines’ brutal crackdown on narcotics. Due to the U.S’ stance, President Duterte expressed his distaste in their relations, and considered working closer with other nations, including Russia and China.

In an Oct. 16, 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, Duterte acknowledged that the United States had its concerns with the Philippines’ agenda, but said that he disagreed with how the U.S expressed those concerns. Duterte claimed that the U.S did not express them in the proper international spotlight, instead  choosing to directly tell Duterte that if what U.S considered human rights violations continued, America would cut off assistance to the Philippines. Said assistance includes the United States’ past decision to withhold a shipment of 26,000 rifles and a possible halt/reduction in economic aid aimed to reduce poverty throughout the Philippines. In response, President Duterte made a threat to terminate a pact that allows U.S. troops to visit the Philippines and to reduce military cooperation between both countries.

However, President Duterte has taken a liking to current U.S. President Donald Trump. During a call between the two leaders, Trump, then the president-elect, praised Duterte for his controversial war on drugs. On April 26th 2017, President Trump invited President Duterte to visit the White House the next month. President  Trump is also planning a trip to the Philippines in November to discuss further plans in improving the relations between the U.S. and the Philippines. While relations between the Philippines and the U.S. under Trump’s administration are likely to improve, the Philippines’ relationship with Russia is still likely to see a significant development. 

Russia – Philippines

The Philippines’ relationship with Russia is likely to strengthen considerably in the near future. In May 2016, the Filipino Ambassador to Russia, Carlos Sorreta, responded positively to Russia’s decision for tighter Eurasian Economic Union – Association of South East Asian Nation (EEU-ASEAN) cooperation, specifically in the economic sector. South East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia have also strengthened their relationships with Russia in recent years. The Philippines’ support for an EEU-ASEAN trade could significantly increase Russia’s presence throughout Southeast Asia.

On January 3rd 2017, Russian Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov visited the Philippines and docked two warships there. The visit’s aim was to showcase Russian military technology and lay the groundwork for joint military exercises with the Philippines. Russia’s visit was well received as it reflects development on President Duterte’s decision for cooperation with Russia. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that the Philippines’ military would be only open to arms sales in line with its own defense needs, capabilities, and budget availability. This includes equipment such as drones, pistols, and rifles. More time is likely needed if the Philippines were to purchase higher-grade military assets such as submarines, tanks, missiles, and warships.

Philippine analysts have highlighted the synergy between Putin and Duterte. Jaime Bautista, the former Philippine ambassador to Russia, has stated that Duterte admires Putin’s ability to keep Russia stable, despite political challenges and economic pressure. Similarities can also be seen between Duterte’s approach in preserving law and order in the Philippines with Putin’s crackdown on crime in Russia during the early 2000s.

Russia’s outreach to Philippines could be complicated by a thaw in Filipino-American relations under Trump. But Duterte’s foreign policy doctrine will likely allow the Philippines to maintain security partnerships with both Russia and the U.S.

Even though the Philippines’ foreign policy is likely to continue to revolve around Duterte’s relationships with the United States and China, Russia has a unique opportunity to forge a durable economic and security partnership with the Philippines.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons