Philippines President prepares for first visit to Russia, where he will meet President Vladimir Putin
Trip comes as Philippines realigns its diplomacy and trade policies in the face of Western criticism over human rights abuses
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte will depart on an official five-day visit to Moscow Monday, as part of an effort to realign his country’s foreign policy away from longtime ally the United States.
Under Duterte, who took office in June 2016, the Philippines has made overtures toward Beijing and Moscow – seeing the countries as a source of much-needed investment – and away from the US.
In a pre-departure speech Monday, Duterte hailed the visit as the “writing of a new chapter in the Philippines-Russia relationship,” describing it as a chance to “correct” the “strategic oversight” of previous Filipino leaders.
“There are opportunities of cooperation that cannot be ignored” said Duterte. Reiterating his “firm resolve to broaden the horizons for friendship,” Duterte highlighted Russia’s “geographic footprint” as well as its “strategic interest in the (Asia Pacific) region” as reasons for extending cooperation between the two countries.
Relations between the Philippines’ traditional ally, the US, have been strained. Last year Duterte lashed out at former US President Barack Obama amid reports the US was canceling an arms deal over alleged human rights abuses.
At the time, Duterte said, “I’m no American puppet,” and suggested Manila would turn to Russia instead.
Over the weekend, Duterte indicated that one of the top priorities of the trip would be to acquire Russian-made precision armaments, to use against Islamist militants in the Southern Philippines, local media reported.
“I’ve been scouting around for (a weapon to finish them off)… I’m going to Russia. Same purpose. If they can spare us the precision-guided (bombs)… we have so many smart bombs but not as accurate as the ones guided by laser or satellite,” he said at a Philippine Coast Guard Auxillary national convention, according to the Philstar.
The trip, alongside recent visits to China, is designed to diversify the Southeast Asian nations’ trade as relations with allies such as the European Union and the US become increasingly chilly.
Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the invitation on the sidelines of an APEC summit in Peru last November, according to Maria Natividad, Philippines’ assistant secretary for foreign affairs.
The trip sends “a strong message of the Philippines’ commitment to seek new partnerships and strengthen relations with nontraditional partners” such as Russia, Natividad said.
The visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg marks the first time Duterte will visit Russia and his administration hopes it will “mark a new chapter in Philippine-Russia relations,” she added.
It will kick off with a bilateral meeting between Duterte and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, before the Philippines’ president gives a policy speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) on the Philippines’ independent foreign policy and “his ideas on how to achieve peace and security, especially in the Asia Pacific region.”
He will then meet Russian President Vladimir Putin – who Duterte previously described as his “favorite hero” – before hosting a gathering of expatriate Filipinos who have settled in Russia and surrounding countries.
The two countries last year marked 40 years of diplomatic relations, but ties remain “best described as cordial albeit modest in scope and depth,” Natividad said at a pre-departure briefing for the press ahead of the trip.
The trip, which a trade delegation will also attend, is expected to lead to deals in defense, security, legal assistance, tourism, the “peaceful use of nuclear energy” and cultural exchange.
Bilateral trade in 2016 totaled $226 million, with the Philippines only exporting $49 million worth of goods to Russia, Natividad said.
Rodrigo Duterte's most controversial comments
Western countries have taken issue with Duterte’s track record on human rights since taking office – his police force has waged a bloody war on drugs over the past year, with extrajudicial killings of dealers and users numbering the thousands.
Following reports late last year that the US State Department had halted the sale of an estimated 26,000 assault rifles to Philippines police, Duterte suggested that he would look to Russia for arms deals instead.
“They’re blackmailing me that they won’t sell weapons? We have lots of explosives here,” Duterte said, according to CNN Philippines.
“I remember what the Russian diplomat said: Come to Russia, we all have here anything you need.”
The Philippines has also distanced itself from the European Union, recently rejecting an aid package worth around 250 million euros ($278 million) over the next three years, given as it was tied to commitments to improve human rights.
“We cannot accept aid with conditions,” Foreign Affairs Minister Alan Peter Cayetano said.
“We’re just telling them very respectfully: we believe in our independence. We know our problems better than you. You are welcome here. Let’s do business but we will not accept aid if there are conditions or you will interfere.”
Duterte has a “very long, complex history of anti-Americanism,” Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations told CNN, and his relationship with former President Barack Obama was particularly fractious, with the Filipino leader once calling Trump’s predecessor a “son of a bitch.”
Kurlantzick suggested that while Duterte is likely to visit Washington he may not want to appear as though he is embracing the US, given how much he has courted China and Russia.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the title of Maria Natividad. She is the Philippines’ assistant secretary for foreign affairs.