Geostrategic shift in the Asia-Pacific: Moscow, Manila push the envelope

The Philippines turns to Russia to help ease tensions in the Asia-Pacific. Source: Reuters

The Philippines turns to Russia to help ease tensions in the Asia-Pacific. Source: Reuters

As the Chinese-American rivalry heats up the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines wants Russia to take the lead and cool things down.

The Philippines, which played host to Russia’s first diplomatic mission in South East Asia in 1820, is rediscovering the value of old ties.

With its long maritime border and a simmering littoral dispute with China, the Philippines faces a serious security threat in its immediate neighbourhood. The solution to Manila’s insecurities may come from Moscow.

In July 2014, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Konstantin Biryulin, told the media in Manila: “We have similar problems in Russia and we know how to tackle them. That’s why we have a proposal regarding equipment which could help in controlling those areas.”

As well as ramping up economic cooperation between Russia and the Philippines, Biryulin said one of the purposes of his visit was to negotiate military technical cooperation with the Department of National Defense (DND). Such cooperation may include military hardware. According to one report, Russia may be offering radar and advanced surface-to-air missiles.

The groundwork for expanding military cooperation with the Philippines began in January 2012 when three Russian warships visited Manila (at the same time as two US destroyers). It was the first visit by the Russian Pacific Fleet to the Philippines in 96 years. The same year Russia made an unsuccessful bid to sell Yak-130 jet trainers to the Philippines Air Force.

Considering the nascent defence ties between the two countries, it’ll be years before high-octane Russian hardware arrives in Subic Bay. Because of historical reasons, the Filipinos believe their natural partner is the US. However, the equation between Russia and the Philippines is changing in the backdrop of regional tensions.

Carlos D. Sorreta, Director, Philippine Foreign Service Institute, believes in terms of security cooperation between the countries, there is much that can be done. “Compared to other regions, East Asia is where there is least contention between the US and Russia,” Sorreta says in a discussion paper titled Security Developments in the Asia Pacific: Philippine and Russian Perspectives. According to him, history should not be a hindrance to the Philippines and Russia working together in key political groupings like the ASEAN Region Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus process.

Sorreta adds: “Could Russia play a more dramatic role in security in the context of these institutions? I believe that it can do so and one possible area is for Russia to take a more active role in helping create the conditions where the nuclear powers can sign on to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Treaty. On this issue, the Philippines would gladly work closely with Russia.”

 

No baggage

Russia’s biggest advantage is that it has no territorial claims in South East Asia. And unlike the US and China that seek to extend their influence in the region and are in fact frenetically preparing for a future clash, Russia’s interest lies in redistributing power in the region.

Manila-based journalist Al Labita says Russia has sought to contrast its low-key role in the region with that of the US. In fact, according to Artyom Lukin and Sergei Sevastyanov of Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University, one reason President Vladimir Putin skipped the East Asian Summit in Cambodia in November 2012 was Moscow’s keenness to show that Russia wants to avoid taking sides on controversial regional issues.

 

China syndrome

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea on the basis of Chinese maps published in the 1940s, leading to a rash of disputes with its South East Asian neighbours.

Russia doesn’t want to be seen as siding with one or the other. In any dealings with regional players, Moscow is careful not to upset Beijing. The reasons are aplenty: China is now Russia’s leading trade partner; it’s a fellow-BRICS member; and it buys Russian weapons in bulk. Plus, in the backdrop of western sanctions, China is now its main financial backer.

But at the same time, Moscow can’t afford to give Beijing a free run. For, that would mean Russia reverting to its Cold War status of playing a side role in the region. “China clearly wants to be the dominant power in the region, something that could jeopardise Russia’s efforts to engage the region and develop its Far East area,” says Sorreta.

Elizabeth Wishnick of Columbia University agrees. In a policy memo titled ‘Russia: New Player in the South China Sea?’ she says it’s not the Sino-Russian strategic partnership that will make Russia more of a player in East Asia, as Russian policymakers originally thought nearly two decades ago, but rather Russia’s role in counterbalancing Chinese power in the region, via defence and energy ties with Southeast Asian states.

“Although Russia finds support in China for its global positions, on a regional level Russian leaders have sought to enhance their country’s independence of action through an increasingly varied Southeast Asian diplomacy, including traditional allies like Vietnam, but also unexpected partners such as the Philippines,” she says.

 

Russia’s Asia pivot

As tensions rise between China and the US and clashes occur between China and the littoral states over the Spratly Islands, the Philippines has begun to see the worth of Russian participation. This is happening even as the Americans are seen as befuddled in the region despite their so-called Asia Pivot.

In 'Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia', Amitav Acharya writes: “The US refusal to accept Manila’s claim that the scope of their mutual defence treaty covers its positions in the Spratly Islands further attests to the uncertain nature of their alliance relationship. A US-led balance of power approach may not be relevant to the task of preventing and managing small-scale regional conflicts, such as the resurgence of instability in Cambodia, border clashes in South East Asia, or armed conflict over the South China Sea islands.

Acharya adds: “Moreover, the ASEAN states share the view that a highly adversarial Sino-US relationship with a containment strategy will threaten regional stability. (The late Singapore strongman) Lee Kuan Yew, perhaps the most outspoken critic of a containment strategy, argues that a strong and belligerent US response to Chinese power will stroke nationalist and hardline sentiments in China, with the consequence that the medium and small countries of the region have to live with the results of an aroused and xenophobic China.”

Russia’s policy has been markedly different. It maintains good relations with China while deepening ties with countries in the region such as the Philippines that may have issues with China. “This is a good strategy and one that the Philippines could support,” says Sorreta. “It is a strategy that would require Russia not to take sides on who owns what, but would allow it to support actions that are based on the principles of international law and that reduce tensions.”

According to Wishnick, “China’s growing economic and military power in Asia has led to renewed interest in a greater Russian role in the region...With the US rebalancing policy leading to greater US engagement with the region, Russia, like ASEAN, has sought to chart a course in Asia that reduces the likelihood of US-China conflict. Similarly, regarding Japan, Russia has tried to encourage negotiation between Beijing and Tokyo in a bid to reduce tensions over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. From Russia’s perspective, China’s assertiveness in Asia has broader negative consequences in terms of precipitating an enhanced US military presence in the region.”

 

The outlook

In August, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Meetings in Kuala Lumpur. They agreed to facilitate the conclusion of several pending agreements between the two countries, including the establishment of an intergovernmental commission on trade, defence and military technical cooperation, and combating transnational crimes.

The greatest potential for improving ties is in the following areas:

Defence: Since both are starting from scratch, the trajectory can only go upward. Because the Philippines is increasingly concerned about its vast maritime borders, Russia should offer it the S-300 missile, which Moscow is contracted to supply to Syria and Iran. China is likely to protest but the S-300 is an air defence system and unless Beijing has plans to invade the Philippines it has no reason to go ballistic. Besides, China will soon receive the more advanced S-400 air defence system, so it has grounds for complaining.

Currently, the Philippines is locked into the western defence system because of its largely American hardware, but with Russia now offering platforms with a range of user requirements, Manila can ask for customised weapons that can be integrated into its existing systems. This is what Malaysia and Indonesia have done.

According to Sorreta, there are two clear advantages Russian arms sales policies have over the West: “One, Russian arms are more competitively priced. The other is that little to no conditions are attached to these sales.”

Energy: As the closest South East Asian country to the Russian Far East, including the oil and gas fields off Sakhalin Island, the Philippines expressed interest in positioning itself as a regional hub for the delivery of Russian fuel and energy products to other Asia-Pacific countries. Manila also aimed to diversify its energy sources and see energy cooperation with Russia as a key to secure the Philippines' energy security. Russian diplomats see such cooperation as a "promising area" for development.

In fact, without much fanfare Russia has become a key player in the East Asian energy sector. With the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline coming on stream, Russia now offers a viable alternative for countries that want to lower their dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

In September 2003, the Philippines received its first 700,000 barrels of imported crude oil from Russia, after Pilipinas Shell became one of the first oil companies to sign a deal with Russia. This year it imported 11.3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia, accounting for 17.5 per cent of the total crude oil mix. Saudi Arabia is the Philippines’ largest supplier at over 57 per cent, and although its main ally, the US, has asked Manila to impose sanctions on Russia, the good money is on the Filipinos sourcing more oil from Siberia and less from Saudi Arabia.

 

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