Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte open to joint naval drills with Russia

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) will consider joint naval exercises with Russia, his spokesman said in Manila on Jan 5, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) will consider joint naval exercises with Russia, his spokesman said in Manila on Jan 5, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will consider joint naval exercises with Russia, his spokesman said on Thursday (Jan 5), months after he decided to reduce military drills with the US.

At a briefing in the presidential palace, spokesman Ernesto Abella said Mr Duterte saw this week's visit by two Russian warships to Manila would enhance friendship between the navies. Mr Duterte, who in November approved recommendations to reduce and refocus joint naval exercises with US, is scheduled to visit one of the ships on Friday (Jan 6).

Since taking office six months ago, Mr Duterte has repeatedly questioned his country's decades-old military alliance with the US while seeking closer ties with China and Russia. He announced a "separation" from the US 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 Mr 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 US military presence in the region," Mr Muraviev said. He noted that the first informal meeting between Russia's defense minister and counterparts from the 10-member Asean 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 US once had a base, Mr 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, Mr Abella said, citing Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who visited Moscow last December. Mr Abella said the Philippine president opposes the permanent stay of any foreign troops in his country.

Russia's ambassador to the Philippines, Mr Igor Khovaev, said on Wednesday (Jan 4) 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 US State Department in November last year halted the sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippines' national police after US Senator Ben Cardin said he would oppose it over concerns about human rights violations. Mr 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 US$1 billion (S$1.43 billion) credit facility it provided to Indonesia for the purchase of Russian-made equipment in 2007, according to Mr Muraviev.

"If the Philippine strategic direction is shifting or diversifying to also include Russia, Russia can do it," he said.