MANILA: The Philippines has stepped up its military relations with Russia as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “friend to all, enemy to no one” approach to foreign policy.
And Manila has also been buying in Israeli defense technology and equipment to help combat the scourge of terrorism in the country.
Defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong told Arab News on Friday that recent moves to strengthen international defense and security cooperation with non-traditional allies did not mean that the Philippines would be dumping its main long-term partner the US.
However, on Monday three Russian warships are due to dock in Manila for a four-day friendly visit in the latest round of joint military cooperation activities.
Moscow is keen to help with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ defense modernization program, and only last week Russian ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, warned against existing allies imposing sanctions on Manila for any future arms agreements it might reach with Russia.
Andolong stressed his country would not be turning its back on “big brother” America, but said: “Before, we didn’t even dream of talking to the Russians. Now we are engaging with them along with other nations that are not our traditional allies.
“We realized that Russia is a major strategic player in geopolitics. It will do no harm if we are on good terms with them. With the dynamics of global security, someday, somewhere down the road, we may require their (Russia’s) assistance. It’s always good to be in constant touch.” He added that the same applied to his country’s relations with China.
Noting that the Philippines already had long-standing ties with Israel, Andolong said that “for the first time, we are already actively acquiring technology and equipment from them (the Israelis) and learning best practices when it comes to countering terrorism.”
The spokesman added: “I think it’s good for our defense establishment to take stock of how the global community is growing in terms of defense. By opening (our doors), we are able to develop a better understanding of our friends overseas.”
Prior to Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines had never cooperated with Russia. “The most we ever did was exchange personnel. Now we are sending, or we have sent, troops to participate in certain events in Russia, and we are already engaging with their Ministry of Defense on a regular basis.”
In November last year, a plan mapping out joint military activities between the Philippines and Russia was finalized in Moscow. It includes high-level exchanges, port visits of navy vessels, conferences, staff and security consultations, reciprocal visits of delegations and observers for military training exercises, and education and training exchanges.
The Philippines’ warship BRP Tarlac made a historic trip to the Pacific port city of Vladivostok last year and Russian Navy vessels now make regular visits to the Philippines. The latest will be on Monday when three Russian warships are scheduled to arrive in Manila for a four-day friendly visit. Their visit coincides with the annual US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises taking place in various parts of Luzon island.
“Admittedly, it raises eyebrows on both sides,” said Andolong. “However, it’s consistent with (the president’s) ‘friends to all and enemy to no one’ policy. It’s a friendly port call, I see no issue. They’re not going to engage in any military operations.”
Russia has expressed interest in participating in the Philippine military’s modernization program, which includes a helicopter project and planned submarine acquisition.
Admiral Valdimir Korolyov, chief of the Russian Navy, visited the Philippines last month to meet defense officials, and in 2017 Duterte received a donation of assault rifles, ammunition, military trucks and steel helmets from Russia.
Last week ambassador Khovaev said Russia attached great importance to its relations with the Philippines in the field of security and defense as both countries faced common enemies, particularly terrorism.
“It’s in our national interest to help the Philippines increase their defense and security capabilities in the legitimate struggle against terrorism... We are ready to share our experience. We fully support your struggle against terrorism, against drug trafficking, piracy at sea, and so many other evils,” the envoy said.
On promoting military relations between Moscow and Manila, Khovaev said all options were open, including the supply of sophisticated arms and equipment, and the transfer of technologies to help the Philippines develop its defense industry.
Khovaev stressed that it was not in Russia’s interests to damage the Philippines’ traditional relationships with other countries. “In our view, diversification means keeping old traditional allies and partners, and getting new ones. That’s why any attempt to influence our bilateral relationships by using sanctions or any other methods and ways is, for us, absolutely unacceptable.
“Nobody has a right to teach us how we should live, how we should develop our relationship, our cooperation. That is why sanctions imposed by your traditional allies on Russia must not have any impact on Russian-Philippines cooperation,” said Khovaev.
International security expert Stephen Cutler, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, said he did not see a problem with the growing military cooperation between the two countries.
“I don’t think that the United States ought to (impose sanctions on the Philippines), in the same way that the United States doesn’t impose sanctions on Malaysia, Indonesia, India just because they have Russian stuff. Compete with them and make a good deal,” he said.
But Cutler suggested Manila should be careful with its Russian dealings. “Don’t deal with the Russians to spite the United States. Do it because it makes sense, from your supply chain and your strategic national security goals and objectives.”
He said when dealing with any country, the Philippines should be “eyes open, mind open” and put its own interests first.
Albert Del Rosario, former Philippines secretary of foreign affairs, said: “On the supply of arms and equipment, of great significance is the element of interoperability which should be as much as possible closely factored with one’s treaty ally.”