The failure of the Duterte Administration’s pivot to the non-traditional partners


On Feb. 24, Russia launched a full-scale armed invasion of Ukraine. The member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) found themselves confronted with the terrible implications of Russia’s unprovoked aggression in the Ukraine invasion.

The invasion was a blatant violation of an independent state’s sovereignty as enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Charter. Russia’s close partner in East Asia, China, might replicate Russia’s approach in pursuing its irredentist agenda. This could be achieved through its expansion into the South China Sea at the expense of other coastal states and the invasion of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

The Philippines’ reaction was confusion and bewilderment. Initially, the Philippines directed all its attention and efforts to evacuate a few hundred Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Ukraine. Then, former Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, declared that the Philippines would be neutral in the conflict because it was none of our business. He emphatically stated: “We are going to be neutral for now. We have nothing to do with Europe or what they are doing; we are not near the borders of Ukraine.”

However, on Feb. 28, the Permanent Philippine Delegation to the United Nations supported the US-Albanian-sponsored resolution passed during the Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Ukraine. The Philippine statement expressed its explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and urged the cessation of hostilities in the conflict. It also cited the UN Charter, which requires sovereign states to refrain from using force against other states’ political independence and territorial integrity.

The Philippines, nevertheless, refused to join the other US Indo-Pacific allies that imposed sanctions against Russia. This reflected Manila’s dilemma in supporting Washington’s efforts to isolate Moscow versus its interest in keeping its ties to Russia open, especially in defense. This was because Manila had just announced the purchase of Brahmos cruise missiles, jointly developed by Indian and Russian arms manufacturers, and a signed arms deal with Moscow to acquire Russian-made Mil Mi-17 heavy-lift helicopters.

In the next few days, the Department of National Defense (DND) found itself defending the Mi-17 helicopter deal in the face of several countries imposing sanctions and companies holding their business in Russia in protest over its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In his March 11 statement, Secretary Lorenzana said that the contract and initial payment for the Mi-17 heavy-lift helicopter acquisition project had been completed before the invasion.

The Philippines is upholding its contractual obligation as it takes note of the circumstances that may affect the project. Lorenzana said that the P12.7-billion ($254 million) contract had been signed in November, and a down payment had been made in January. Then, he added that the contract was unlikely to be scrapped for now.

THE FAILED PIVOT TO RUSSIADuring the early months of the Duterte administration, public and foreign observers focused on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial pivot to China while ignoring his efforts to strategically gravitate to Russia. Former President Duterte did his best to improve Philippine-Russia relations as one of his foreign policy initiatives based on his independent foreign policy. He planned to keep the alliance with the US intact, with the Philippines seeking cooperation with new or non-traditional partners like China and Russia.

In May 2017, President Duterte went to Moscow for an official visit and met with President Vladimir Putin. Against the backdrop of the battle for Marawi City, Russia took the opportunity to offer the Philippines direct military assistance such as assault rifles and armored personnel carriers and intelligence on the foreign ISIS fighters operating in Southeast Asia.

In October 2019, President Duterte visited Russia for the second time to affirm the Philippines’ commitment to building a robust and comprehensive partnership with Russia. The Philippines signed a deal to purchase 16 Russian-made Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters for $14.7 million. It was considered a symbolic acquisition from Russia that was expected to pave the way for more advanced and large-scale arms acquisition for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

The Philippine military, however, was unprepared for the Duterte administration’s sudden shift toward China and, to a certain degree, Russia. This is because the AFP viewed both countries as traditional threats to national security.

The AFP also finds little need to expand security relations with Russia and acquire Russian-made weapons since they follow Eastern-bloc standards that could not be integrated with its NATO-certified weapons systems. There are also doctrine, training, and integration issues, which must be considered before the Philippine military purchases and acquires Russian-made armaments. Closer Philippine-Russia defense relations are also hampered by the lack of mutual awareness about each other’s interests. Also, the AFP and DND are concerned that closer ties between the countries could adversely affect the Philippine-US alliance.

SCRAPPING THE DEALThe significant step to jump-start the Philippine-Russian defense relationship faltered when the Philippines opted not to consider Russia’s offer of two Kilo-class submarines for the Philippine Navy (PN). Instead, the PN narrowed its choice to two other countries — France and South Korea. The deal of the 17 heavy-lift helicopters became controversial because of logistic, financial, and political repercussions triggered by the Ukraine-Russia War.

The Duterte administration declared that it would honor its commitment to purchase these heavy-lift 17 Russian helicopters. Eventually, it backtracked and announced that it would review it, but ultimately canceled the arms deal. This means the Philippines had forfeited the P2-billion down payment to Russia. More significantly, it signified the failure of the Duterte administration’s strategic pivot to China and Russia.

Dr. Renato De Castro is a trustee and program convenor of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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