Duterte’s pivot to Russia
Is President Duterte flashing a pivot to Russia by terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States? Is this the promise he made in 2016 to break away from America and form an “alliance” with China and Russia?
Caught off-guard by Mr. Duterte’s audacious move to terminate the VFA, US officials are looking to the defense dialogue with their Philippine counterparts in March to flex muscle by saving the agreement that governs the presence of US troops in the country. Or they can stall the effectivity of the notice of termination through a review of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) which both sides had signaled last year.
Talks are ongoing between Philippine officials and Russian diplomats on enhancing military technical cooperation—first sealed in 2017 and upgraded last October. On the agenda are new weapons deals and an arms manufacturing facility in the Philippines. The talks are aimed at filling the void once US military aid ends upon the VFA’s termination. In 2017, Russia donated thousands of AKs, trucks and munitions; last year, it had three Philippine Navy vessels sail to Vladivostok for joint exercises. Russian warships have since been making port calls in Manila.
Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev sounded political in making an absolute pledge that his country would never interfere in the Philippines’ internal affairs—an oblique reference to US meddling.
In recent years, Russia has actively engaged Asia through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and has signed a comprehensive agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Although Moscow’s pivot to the East is China-centric, it has rekindled bilateral relations with its Cold War ally Vietnam while increasing energy and arms trade with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar.
It also maintains solid security ties with Malaysia and Indonesia, and is on track to clinching the same with the Philippines.
Russia’s role as an emerging player in the region comes at a time when Southeast Asian countries are keeping an equidistant position of economic partnership with China and security ties with the United States. Its entry into the region, especially in trade, will gain traction, enabling countries to balance economic dependence on China with boosting development with Russian energy supplies.
But if at all, Mr. Duterte’s perceived pivot to Russia is a long shot. Even if the VFA is terminated, the full spectrum of the US-PH alliance system including its cornerstone MDT as well as the 2002 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) will remain intact. The 1999 VFA frames the two parties’ defense cooperation with joint exercises. But the Edca, which allows US forces to preposition and run facilities in Philippine bases, is considered by the Pentagon as the most significant agreement in decades.
Arguably, the United States’ military presence in the Philippines is critical to its core security objectives in the broader Indo-Pacific. Its defense alliance with its former colony primarily serves US security interests. Junking the VFA will call off 300 war exercises scheduled this year. The war games were to be integrated with US-Asean exercises, freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and the prepositioning of a new missile system.
In 70 years, this unequal alliance has dragged the Philippines into US wars in Korea and Indochina, as well as the war on terror in Iraq. But until now, the defense alliance enjoys strong support from factions of the local elite who now challenge the President’s decision to end the VFA.
Even if Mr. Duterte may have good intentions in abandoning the VFA while resisting US meddling, his act has not won unequivocal support from his allies. He has not shown any clear blueprint on what to do with the other defense pacts, let alone a strategic chart toward an independent foreign policy.
Independent foreign policy is always challenging, but it has its own risks. Right now, the biggest question is whether the Duterte administration is prepared to meet possible US retaliation if the going gets tough, such as diplomatic and military sanctions. America will never budge from scaling down its military hegemony and balance of power in the region.
Bobby M. Tuazon is CenPEG director for policy studies and UP professor.
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