May 26, 2017 2:02 pm JST
Richard Heydarian

Duterte and Putin double act heralds new regional order

Leaders' cosy relationship shows an ideological, and personal, affinity

"Historically, I have been identified with the Western world. It was good [while] it lasted," Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in their first meeting in November last year on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Eager to diversify his country's external relations, the tough-talking Filipino leader recently embarked on a five-day trip to Moscow (May 22-26) to upgrade a historically anemic relationship. The trip was cut short as Duterte rushed back to deal with the siege by Islamic militants of the southern Philippine town of Marawi. But in many ways, it was an icebreaker state visit, both in bilateral terms and by reflecting a broader shift in Southeast Asia's regional strategic landscape.

Throughout the country's modern history, various Philippine governments have consistently shunned closer ties with Russia, fearing an adverse impact on their intimate alliance with America. Even the end of the Cold War, which saw the emergence of a quasi-democratic regime in Moscow, did not change this configuration.

The election of Duterte, however, has ended the Southeast Asian country's decades-long strategic aversion to Moscow. Vowing to pursue an "independent" foreign policy, and vexed by the West's ceaseless criticism of his controversial campaign against illegal drugs, Duterte has forged ahead with seeking new strategic partnerships with characteristic gusto.

The trip to Moscow came shortly after Duterte's visit to China, where he met President Xi Jinping and Premiere Li Keqiang to discuss large-scale infrastructure investment deals as well as a $500 million loan to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to purchase Chinese weapons.

Amid coordinated attacks by Islamic State-affiliated groups in Duterte's home island of Mindanao, the Philippine president cut his Russian trip short. Yet, he managed to arrange an earlier-than-scheduled meeting with Putin, whom he has described as his "favorite hero." This was the second formal meeting between the two leaders in the past six months.

The blossoming Philippine-Russian relationship marks the intersection of multiple factors. It is driven by Duterte's personal preferences for and ideological affinity with Putin. Polls suggest that Duterte and Putin enjoy almost identical levels of popularity at around 80%, giving them significant latitude to reshape their country's foreign and domestic policies.

Strongman style

The Philippine leader regularly praises his Russian counterpart for his decisiveness and willingness to stand up to Western powers, particularly the U.S. Duterte has also expressed admiration for Putin's strongman style of leadership and his seemingly ironclad grip over the Russian state apparatus.

Similar to his Russian counterpart, Duterte has a deep antipathy toward the liberal oligarchy at home, which is broadly aligned to America and is skeptical of -- if not out rightly opposed to -- Duterte's rise to the presidency. The Philippine leader's recent attempts at directly appointing regional leaders and threatening liberal media outlets with tax evasion cases eerily echo Putin's successful measures at consolidating power in the early 2000s.

Duterte's declaration of martial law across Mindanao, instead of assuming milder versions of emergency powers, and his subsequent threat to extend it across the country, prompted some critics to accuse him of contemplating a Putin-style regime in the Philippines. The constitution, however, has multiple safeguards against abuse of presidential power, giving both the legislature and the Supreme Court sufficient ability to curb any potential executive abuse.

More crucially, the defense establishment, which has been skeptical of Duterte's pivot toward the Eastern powers, has also ensured that guidelines for the implementation of martial law in Mindanao preserve basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of citizens.

There are also more pragmatic calculations at play. The Philippines is amidst a tug-of-war with the West over human rights concerns. Last year, the U.S. State Department decided to postpone the shipment of firearms to the Philippine National Police and defer a $434 million economic aid package based on concerns over Duterte's war on drugs. The European Union could also impose sanctions.

In response, the Duterte administration is eager to seek alternative partners and military suppliers, with Moscow offering not only firearms, but also advanced weaponry such as submarines, drones, tanks and helicopters. The bulk of the Philippines' defense equipment stockpile is from the U.S., and is mostly outdated hardware, including Vietnam-era surplus material.

For Duterte, Russia could become a source of affordable and sophisticated weaponry to deal with domestic insurgencies, terrorism, as well as external threats. Shortly after Duterte's departure from Moscow, senior Filipino officials, who stayed behind, oversaw the signing of 10 major agreements aimed at deepening bilateral defense, strategic, economic relations.

In particular, they signed an Agreement on Defense Cooperation, a crucial legal framework for military-to-military exchanges, training, intelligence-sharing, and possibly even joint exercises down the road. In light of growing concerns over the spread of Islamic State to the Caucasus and Mindanao, the two countries also signed an intelligence exchange agreement to bolster their virtually non-existent counter-terror cooperation.

During his meeting with Putin, Duterte openly asked for greater Russian assistance in dealing with the terrorist threat. Other bilateral agreements covered tourism, trade, energy and space technology, and industrial development. Moreover, as a veto-bearing member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia could provide much-needed diplomatic cover for Duterte amid growing international criticism of his human rights record.

Battered by sanctions

Russia's blossoming relations with the Philippines, however, are part of a broader "Look to the East" strategy, which Putin formally launched after the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012. Battered by Western sanctions, and eager to tap the booming economies of East Asia, Russia is scrambling for new partners and markets in the region.

As a leading arms and energy exporter, with no claims in the hotly contested East and South China seas, Moscow has presented itself as an honest broker and a potentially constructive regional player. It has conducted joint drills with China in the South China Sea, but has also proposed similar engagements with other claimant states in Southeast Asia.

Hanoi, a major customer of Russia military hardware, is considering granting Russia basing access to Cam Ranh Bay, where Moscow enjoys docking rights, supports refueling missions of its Pacific fleet, and recently built a submarine base to host six of a fleet of Kilo-class submarines it has sold to Vietnam. The Southeast Asian region currently absorbs up to 15% of total Russian arms exports, worth $5 billion. As regional states modernize their armed forces, Moscow is angling to become a key supplier.

Growing uncertainties over America's leadership as well as anxieties over China's naval assertiveness has placed Russia in a particularly fortuitous position. Unperturbed by accusations that the Philppines is upending human rights and democratic values, Moscow is also in a good position to strike major defense agreements with authoritarian leaders, which have testy relations with the West.

However, beyond arms exports and energy deals, including the $400 billion agreement in 2014 to transfer Russian gas to China, Moscow has struggled to build a more comprehensive relationship with Asia. In the Philippines, for instance, Russia has a meager investment footprint ($110,000 in 2014).

Saddled with a shrinking economy, Moscow has limited capacity to provide generous loans and grants to smaller Asian nations. Russia's demographic decline and lack of advanced civilian technology further constrains its ability to project both soft and hard power in the region. Russia is also clearly aware of the need to avoid the impression it is arming China's regional rivals with advanced weaponry.

Nonetheless, the increasingly cozy relationship between Putin and prominent regional leaders like Duterte has taken its place among the harbingers of a post-American order in Asia.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific."

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