Goodwill visits from the Russian Navy are becoming an increasingly regular sight in Manila. Previously when Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu led a Russian military delegation to The Philippines, he presented President Rodrigo Duterte with a gift of free Russian weapons to help the Philippine fight against Takfiri extremism and NPA insurgents.
Duterte has frequently praised Russia along with China as nations that are both generous in their gifts of reliable weapons to the Philippine armed forces as well as countries who in conducting weapons sales do not attach any political conditions to otherwise straight forward deals. Duterte has contrasted the win-win attitude of Russia and China with the hectoring attitude of countries like the EU, US and Canada.
But beyond helping The Philippines to bolster its weapons reserves, there are many ways in which an early stage Russo-Philippine partnership can flourish.
Multipolarity means no “sell out” over South China Sea
Duterte’s win-win agreement with Beijing to jointly explore and exploit resources in the South China Sea continues to be mis-characterised by Duterte’s obstructionist and war hungry opponents as a “sell out” to China. In reality, Duterte has turned a potentially dangerous situation into a mutually beneficial one which looks to turn The Philippines from a potential enemy of the Chinese superpower into a geopolitically neutral actor that has positive business, trading and investment relationships with the most economically influential country of the 21st century.
Beyond this, Duterte’s opponents must realise that his successful cooperative efforts with China cannot be viewed in isolation. They are instead part of Duterte’s already successful but still early stage efforts to transform The Philippines from a country whose progress had been retarded by what the President called “the colonial mentality” into a valuable player on the multi-polar world stage. This means that in addition to working more closely with China, The Philippines should also work to pursue new ASEAN wide initiatives for peace and prosperity with its maritime neighbours in south east Asia while also expanding ties with Turkey, South Africa, the large south Asian powers and Russia. Such a reality would help even the most recalcitrant Duterte opponent to realise that far from “selling out” to China, Duterte is working towards building new partnerships across the multipolar world, including with a country like Russia which clearly has no claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s good personal relations with the Russian leadership and his ability to secure favourable weapons agreements with Moscow must be built upon in order to develop a long term wide ranging relationship between Moscow and Manila that could cover the following areas.
Trade and investment
A weak PHP when combined with strong domestic growth represents a Kensyian model for prosperity. Turkey, whose economy continues to grow at a record pace, in spite of inflation fears that were recently brought under control because of a moderate intervention by the state bank which recently helped to create a more uniform set of interest rates, can be favourably compared to the Philippine economic revival that is taking shape under Duterte.
Because of this, The Philippines can use the weak PHP to begin exporting local goods to countries like Russia and in so doing, set the stage for a wider free trading agreement between The Philippines and the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union that has just signed a free trade agreement with China.
The diversity of the topography and climates of Eurasia vis-a-vis The Philippines automatically means that agricultural goods from The Philippines would be a valued commodity throughout the EAEU. Furthermore, just as is the case with China, countries from the EAEU, most notably Russia, would also be able to help The Philippines develop its own industrial economy which could pay substantial dividends in the long term future.
Education and tourism exchange
Tourism is an easy way to attract injections of Russian cash all the while promoting The Philippines as a top year round South East Asian destination for Russians. Here, the weak PHP is also an asset. As Russians are always eager for English language teachers to work on Russian soil, one could easily envisage an exchange programme where Filipinos with the right educational credentials can gain employment in Russia as English teachers, while Russian speakers can come as seasonal or part time employees in The Philippines to work at resorts catering to Russian speaking tourists.
Cooperation in rebuilding post-conflict Syria
It is in Syria where Filipino workers could most overtly prove their importance to Russia and Russia’s partners and it is also an area where The Philippines and Russia could form an important relationship based on mutual respect. Such a cooperative initiative could also help to further improve Manila’s relationship with Beijing that has begun to flourish under the reforms of President Duterte.
As the wretched conflict in Syria nears an end, Damascus has begun signing multiple contracts for post-war re-development with the governments and private sectors in China, Russia and Iran. However, due to the scale of the re-building necessary, Syria’s post-war partners will likely require a large workforce to see that Syria’s re-development progresses in a rapid and efficient fashion.
Here, Filipino workers could play a vital role in skilled and manual capacities to help with the re-construction of a country that has long been torn apart by foreign funded violence. What’s more is that as construction begins, it will likely be the Russian military along with the Syrian Arab Army that will be the primary guarantors of safety for any and all foreign workers. Such an enthronement could also facilitate further cooperation in anti-terrorist training by Russia and others for Philippine forces who themselves have to content with insurgent groups like Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the NPA.
The Philippines has a large population that includes a youth workforce eager for economic opportunities. Most post-war jobs in Syria will likely be high paying because the stakes are clearly high, but the ability of Russia, Syria and Iran working together to maintain the peace means that ultimately, Syria will return to being a safe country and one whose tolerant, pluralist ancient Mediterranean culture is vastly more civilised and welcoming than the inward looking culture of the Gulfi states.
With Filipino workers building a post-war Syria alongside their local, Chinese, Russian and Iranian counterparts, it would help The Philippines to connect with cultures that it has historically been remote from and in turn, build new trust based relations that could mean more bilateral activities for all partners in future projects. Furthermore, with the image of the Arab world as a whole tarnished in many Philippine eyes by the characteristics of Gulfi Arabs, it could be a positive experience for Filipinos to experience the very different Levantine Arab world, where foreigners are treated with respect and hospitality, rather than as slaves. For those who have any doubts, most Syrians have even more negative feelings about Gulfis than the Filipinos as it is the leading Gulf Cooperation Council states who have funded the terrorists who for years have been attempting to destroy the Syrian Arab Republic.
The result of Russia and The Philippines working with one another and cooperating on re-building Syria can be a win-win situation for all parties involved and could expand many economic, cultural and security horizons for decades to come.
To accomplish this, politicians in both Moscow and Manila must think ‘outside the box’ and embrace new partnerships to accomplish meaningful and important multilateral tasks. Such agreements have many upsides and no foreseeable downsides. There is no reason therefore, not to intensify diplomatic contacts regarding these issues as soon as possible.
The possibilities for a rapidly growing relationship between The Philippines and Russia must go beyond weapons deals, although these are of course deeply important. From capital investment and technology exchange, to free trade and bilateral exchanges in human talent, cultural exchange to a Filipino workforce labouring beside Russians in a new Syria, The Philippines can be Russia’s gateway into ASEAN on the win-win model that is championed as much by Russian President Putin as it is by his close partner Chinese President Xi.