As The Philippines looks to secure its first ever deal for naval submarines with Russia, an American official has warned against such a deal. United States Department of Defense Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver has said the following about the likely submarine deal between Russia and The Philippines,
“I think they should think very carefully about that. If they were to proceed with purchasing major Russian equipment, I don’t think that’s a helpful thing to do [for our] alliance and I think ultimately we can be a better partner than the Russians can be”.
However, when asked why he felt a Russian submarine deal was a poor choice for The Philippines, Schriver was unable to offer any specific reason why The Philippines would somehow be at risk during the course or aftermath of such a deal. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who has in the past praised the ease of conducting military hardware deals with China and Russia vis-a-vis the difficulties he has experienced when dealing with the US, Canada and European Union, criticised Schriver for what he felt was an untoward intervention into the sovereign decision making of the Republic of The Philippines. Duterte further accused the US of treating The Philippines with contempt for trying to bully the country into limiting its options when it comes to military hardware arrangements while Duterte was also critical of the US for delivering inferior military supplies to The Philippines in the recent past. The Philippine President said,
“Why did you not stop the other countries in Asia? Why are you stopping us? Is that the way you treat an ally? And you want us to stay with you for all time. Who are you to warn us? You give us submarines and they will implode”.
Duterte further accused the US of giving The Philippines unsafe old helicopters which could endanger the lives of Philippine soldiers. About this he said,
“One or two or three of the helicopters rusted already, killing all the crew members. Is that the way you treat an ally and you want us to stay with you for all time? You are bright, you have your Harvard graduates there (in the Pentagon). You want us to remain backwards. Vietnam has 7 [submarines], Malaysia has 2, Indonesia has 8. We alone don’t have one. You haven’t given us any”
Duterte’s statement once again demonstrates that his 21st century non-alignment foreign policy strategy is effective at sheltering The Philippines from otherwise poor deals which would not only be costly in terms of finance but potentially costly in terms of lives. The US has not offered any businesslike argument for The Philippines to consider when looking for the best deal on the highest quality vessels possible. Instead, Randall Schriver has merely offered a vague statement that somehow buying from Russia is not conducive to a healthy partnership with the US even though America’s major ASEAN ally Vietnam continues to buy both Russia and American weapons.
Duterte’s comparison of The Philippines to other ASEAN states with submarines is crucial to his overall argument that while the US demands its version of “loyalty” from The Philippines, it has not done anything substantial to warrant this, especially not in recent decades. While Duterte has not sought to alienate The Philippines from its traditional US ally, he has been able to turn Philippines into a model of non-alignment for a new era. As such, Duterte can already be named as one of the most important leaders in modern Philippine history.
Duterte’s Philippines has engaged in an historic rapprochement with China which President Xi Jinping hailed as a “golden era of relations”. By agreeing to work as partners rather than adversaries over matters concerning territorial and maritime rights in the South China Sea, The Philippines has been rewarded with a most-favoured position in the eyes of the leading superpower of the 21st century, China.
Investment from Beijing into The Philippines has already increased as a result and The Philippines looks to play an important role in China’s One Belt—One Road.
Duterte has also developed historically strong ties with Russia and looks keen on cementing both a trading and security partnership with a Moscow that is eager to diversify its new partnerships throughout the ASEAN bloc.
Duterte has made it clear the era of a “colonial mentality” via-a-vis the United States is over. While the US Congress and state-funded American bodies disguised as so-called “NGOs” have taken a harsh line against The Philippines because of this, Donald Trump appears to have a warm personal relationship with Duterte that continues to develop. Because of this, The Philippines remains open to respectful trading relations with the United States, while clearly moving in a direction whereby China will become the most important trading partner for The Philippines. Russia on the other hand, will play an enhanced role in modernising the armed forces of The Philippines, thus reducing dependence on the US which has traditionally demanded a say in policy making among all states with which it maintains security agreements.
At the same time, Duterte has eased tensions with Malaysia, prioritising trading ties above long running territorial disputes, particularly in respect of Sabah.
Duterte’s model which stresses cooperation over mutually beneficial trading and security initiatives with both traditional partners and erstwhile rivals is fast becoming the model for all of South East Asia.
While both Indonesia and Thailand are quietly increasing their trade with China, The Philippines under Duterte has taken a lead in articulating and implementing a model which stresses long-term cooperation with China.
Due to China’s status as the soon to be undisputed leading economy of the world and due to South East Asia’s regional proximity to the leading superpower, those nations which show a willingness to embrace the “win-win” Chinese model while abandoning the confrontational zero-sum model that the US has thrust upon much of South East Asia, will ultimately reap the rewards for doing so.
At the same time the Philippines models itself not as a Chinese “ally” but as a genuinely non-aligned state whose regional and global partnerships are designed to extract the greatest maxim of prosperity for Filipinos while minimising old conflicts. In this sense, the best trade that all nations can make is the swapping of territorial conflicts for agreements based on trade and cultural exchange. This model has been beneficial in minimising tensions throughout the world and while the US seeks to use the South China Sea as a means to sow discord among ASEAN members and between ASEAN and China, Duterte has proven that the opposite approach is the one which will result in mutually assured prosperity and increased diplomatic cooperation.
While Vietnam’s relations with the US have gone from a state of bloody war, to one of sceptical but increasingly close cooperation, China is nevertheless Vietnam’s number one trading partner. As a country whose relations with the US are far less historically intertwined than that between Manila and Washington, Duterte’s model could serve as a useful starting point for the necessary rapprochement between Vietnam and China. If The Philippines can take a realistic “win-win” approach to China, Vietnam, in spite of a fractious history could eventually do the same, especially considering Russia’s historically good ties to Vietnam and its current superpower partnership with Beijing.
While Non-Aligned Movement members will never agree on everything, as this was never the goal of the bloc, there are clear generational leaders of the movement who typically attain their stature based on the ability to win new friends, increase meaningful sovereignty and prosperity, all without alienating former allies beyond that which is inevitable.
In this sense, Duterte has not only led a peaceful political and geo-political revolution for The Philippines and more broadly in South East Asia, he has also become the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement in an era where old global alliances are collapsing, thus renewing the importance of a movement whose inception represented a rejection of dogmatic relations with other states.
Duterte’s defence of the likely forthcoming submarine deal with Russia has successfully called the US bluff. When asked to offer a concrete and rational explanation for Washington’s objections to the deal, the US official in question had nothing of substance to offer. Because of this Duterte looks to pursue his obligations as the head of a sovereign state to seek the best possible outcomes for his nation, irrespective of which partner nation can help to achieve these positive outcomes. While many of Duterte’s predecessors sold out the the best interests of The Philippines to the US and others, Duterte continues to put the best interests of his country before the sentimental objections of others.