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Opinion

Duterte's Putin bromance highlights Asia's strongman infatuation

Vaccine diplomacy a sign of Moscow's strategic penetration in Asia

| Russia & Caucasus
Vladimir Putin talks with Rodrigo Duterte during their meeting in Sochi in October 2019: Putin has proved a useful role model.   © Sipa/AP

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte publicly offered himself as a guinea pig for Vladimir Putin's COVID-19 vaccine, the news was greeted with a mixture of mockery and concern.

But after the World Health Organization and other top health experts specifically warned against any premature vaccine trials, Duterte's enthusiastic endorsement of the Russian president's miracle prophylactic set alarm bells ringing across the Philippines. Some netizens resorted to black humor to alleviate their concerns, wondering aloud how Duterte would choose between "Putin-C," a wordplay on a well-known local vitamin brand, or "Vitamin Xi," after Duterte's assurances that an effective Chinese vaccine would be ready before year's end.

Putting aside vaccine nationalism and Duterte's Putin bromance, the Philippine president's willingness to submit his own body to Putin's seemingly madcap COVID schemes highlights the geopolitical and ideological realignment shaking the region. Over the past decade, Putin has not only emerged as a global brand, he has proved an irresistible role model for Southeast Asia's would-be despots.

Southeast Asia is, after all, no stranger to strongman politics. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad dominated the last two decades of the 20th century with their tireless advocacy for so-called "Asian values." Welcoming economic liberalization as an instrument of national development, they emphatically rejected Western notions of civil liberties as something alien to Asian society. Instead, they self-servingly emphasized deference to the state, and noninterference in their domestic affairs by liberal do-gooders like Australia or the U.S.

The Asian values debate ebbed following the Asian Financial Crisis, which devastated regional economies and swept away authoritarian leaders such as Indonesia's Suharto. But over the past decade, Southeast Asia has seen the rise of a new generation of strongmen and copycat right-wing nationalists desperate to mimic Putin. His ruthless defanging of Russia's independent media, his suppression of liberal opponents and maintaining a powerful military that can stand up to the West, has given rise to what erstwhile Kremlin spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov calls "Sovereign Democracy."

Inspired by neoconservative philosophers such as Ivan Ilyin, who called for a "savior leader" to restore Russian greatness, Putin has turned himself into the 21st century's first and most powerful strongman populist, who has shown how to ignore Western pressure from the outside, and crush liberal reformers within. Just like his Russian heartthrob, Duterte has overseen the systematic weakening of the Philippines' most important liberal institutions and voices, while conveniently embracing regular elections to preserve the outward appearance of liberal democracy.

Duterte is far from alone. In neighboring Indonesia, the only other formal democracy in the region, current defense minister and perennial presidential contender Prabowo Subianto -- a former general and Suharto's son-in-law -- has fashioned himself into the country's Putin. He's even gone so far as to emulate Putin's shirtless swagger. Another favorite Putin gambit added to the regional despot's playbook is the all-out weaponization of social media to destroy adversaries, further undermining people's faith in democratic institutions. Crucially, the ideological tilt toward Russian-style "illiberal democracy" has coincided with Putin's calculated and increasingly determined effort to carve out a sphere of influence in the region.

Moscow's strategic pivot to Asia formally kicked off with the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, where Putin splashed $21 billion to impress his guests and back up his "march east" strategy.

Vladimir Putin, center, sits with APEC leaders during an official reception in Vladivostok in September 2012: Putin splashed $21 billion to impress his guests.   © Reuters

Since then Russia has aggressively pursued major arms deals, energy projects and trade agreements with key Southeast Asian countries. If anything, growing concerns over China and the festering "New Cold War" has played right into Putin's hands, with Russia consciously presenting itself as the third rail alternative to Beijing and Washington.

The upshot is the emergence of Russia as the region's third-largest weapons supplier, selling $6.6 billion worth of armaments between 2010 and 2017 -- a pot of gold that will only grow larger if the Philippines turns to Russia for materiel. For the first time in history, Russia has dispatched a defense attache to Manila in order to facilitate large-scale arms deals as Manila seeks to reduce its reliance on the U.S. and its allies, and at the same maintain a safe distance from China which continues to throw its weight around the South China Sea. Eager to check China's maritime expansionism, Vietnam has also turned to Moscow, with Russia now supplying around 60% of the Southeast Asian country's armaments.

Taking a page out of Hanoi's playbook, Duterte, who became the first Filipino leader to make multiple visits to Russia, not only wants to add Russian submarines and other weapons to his country's arsenal, he has also invited leading Russian oil companies to help exploit the Philippines' South China Sea energy reserves.

Russia's Southeast Asian vaccine diplomacy is part of a bigger strategy to tap into the region's eagerness to balance the worst instincts of China and the US. Facing a crisis at home, and shut out by the West, Putin seems more than eager to leverage his political appeal among Southeast Asian strongmen and once again make Russia a key player in Asia.

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