By Suresh Somu
Bangkok. 26 October 2019. Every cloud has a silver lining and perhaps Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had it up in his sleeves all along and never got to to use it at the right time and right place.
Now he’s under more pressure and when he returned with empty hands after the meeting with President Xi Jinping on the South China Sea dispute, the cards turned to be slipping from his favour.
To an extent, he suffered heavy criticism and blame factor was all time high on the President for the current plight. The resource rich nation, yet helpless, had no strategy to counter China on the dispute.
Recently Duterte said: “China is claiming it as a historical right and they have control over the property and they will not budge.” He even ended by saying: “Any suggestions?”
Now enter Russia to the fold.Russia had been interested in developing ties with states in South-east Asia as early as 19th century. But relationship between Philippines and Russia waned during the cold war era.
GOING THE RUSSIA WAY
This is probably due to the restrictive policy of the American colonial administration of Philippines against the communists. But even after the end of cold war, Philippine leaders largely did not look Russia’s way.
But things may well be turning a new turn. During a recent visit to the Russian capital Moscow, Duterte held talks with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with the intent to broaden the relations while maintaining robust ties with treaty ally, the United States.
Again, Duterte received jabs, this time, from the Russians for his rather inappropriate look at a formal meeting. Yes, this is not the first time Duterte has breached diplomatic protocol and certainly won’t be his last. Clearly, he is known to disdain of wearing suits.
But never judge a book by its cover as what matters most is to win over Russian hearts.
Strangely from enstrangement to brothehood, as Duterte praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as his “favourite hero”. Duterte is clearly in dire need to diversify his country’s strategic partners.
Both countries are now exploring more robust defence and energy cooperation. And Duterte has invited Russian companies to invest in the Philippines. Analysts are of the view that the Philippines President is following the footsteps of Vietnam which has welcomed Russian military hardware as well as offshore energy investments.
This is mainly done to ward off Chinese maritime assertiveness. And quite clearly, this could be a zero sum game with potential repercussions for the South China Sea disputes.
Analyst who have been closely monitoring the talks-progress say that while Duterte is not abandoning long standing ties with the US, he is broadening Philippine diplomacy. And possibly to even lessen the historic dependence on the United States.
DOWNGRADE STRATEGIC TIES
More so, Duterte chose to do so with a non-western nation, especially when he downgraded strategic ties with Western partners who criticised his drug war and his human rights record.
With the Agreement of Defence Cooperation (ADC) in place between Philippines and Russia, both nations discussed joint naval exercises, especially counter-piracy and counter-terrorism drills in the Sulu Sea.
Philippines intend to rake up its defence capabilities with a number of acquisitions from Russia. One of their wish-list is to acquire a Russian-made kilo-class submarine which will effectively deter Chinese encroachment into Philippine waters. And possibly look for alternative and more affordable arms supplier.
On the bilateral trade front, Duterte also invited Russian oil giant Rosneft to invest in the Philippines, in offshore projects in the South China Sea. Clearly, he reckons Russian companies will not back down in stand-off situations.
CHINA KEEPING CLOSE WATCH
In Vietnamese waters, Rosneft with other Russian companies carried out the offshore oil and gas projects, with much displeasure drawn from the Chinese. Despite the risk of antagonising China, Russia continues its exploration activities in Vietnam.
Russia also aided Vietnam’s efforts at enhancing its defensive capabilities. So, it will be hard to understate Duterte’s strategic reorientation towards Russia.
So it’s all not lost for the Philippines president who has now rubbed shoulders with Russia President. Now with a host of activities and discussions underway to beef up its trade and defence capabilities, Mr Duterte is hinting to US that he has other security options and also to deter China from encroaching into Philippines waters.
On the lips of analysts is the question: In the final analysis, is it a short-term gamble or a smart well-played long-term game for Duterte?