Russian Warships Arrive the Philippines Should the United States be Worried about the Philippines’ Independent Foreign Policy?

By Mai Phan

On Monday, April 9, three Russian ships docked in Manila, the Philippines, for five-day “goodwill visit” amid the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. This is the second time this year Russian vessels have docked in the Philippines. The event featured two Russian large anti-submarine ships, Admiral Vinogradov and Admiral Tributs, and a large sea tanker, Irkut. According to the Philippines News Agency, the objective of this visit is to enhance naval cooperation between the Philippines and Russia through joints drill on navigation and communication as well as special training in emergent responses. [1] International audiences, on the other hand, pay more attention to the diplomatic implications of this visit to the world affairs.

In a broader context, the Philippines-Russia relationship is a part of the Philippines’ independent foreign policy. As soon as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed control of the government, he announced that the Philippines is pursuing an independent but friendly relationship with all nations, a move to diversify Manila’s allies. Duterte’s three major targets include separation of the Philippines’ foreign policy from the United States, improvement of relations with non-traditions partners like Russia, Japan, and India, and improvement of relations with China. Mico A. Wang, researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines, perceives the sudden shift in the Philippines’ foreign policy as a “goal of hedging”. Wang states that the Philippines is seeking to offset long-term risks from relying from one traditional ally which is the United States. [2]

Despite the April’s trip relatively small scale, there is a systematic growth in Philippines-Russia relationship under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte. Besides naval visits, Philippines navy chief, Robert Empedrad and Russian Navy chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, have made several visits to prepare for a bilateral naval cooperation agreement. According to Prashanth Parameswaran, reporter for the Diplomat, the agreement will be signed in Russia this July. After the agreement is effective, it will set ground for significant defense collaboration between the two navies including port visits, joint exercises, and training activities. [3]

Now the article is going to provide three main reasons explaining why the United States should care more about the Philippines’ independent foreign policy.

First, the Philippines has opened a precious opportunity for Russian military’s presence in the region. This is certainly not a desirable outcome for American policy makers. Just about five decades ago, the United States was still struggling to prevent the spread of communism by Soviet Union, the former Russia in Southeast Asia. Since then, American policy makers often views Russia as a major political dissident. Specifically, the United States regards itself as the guardians of liberal democracy in western sphere, while Russia has long been refusing the American-led world order.

Second, Russian presence in the region tends to benefit China, a critical rival power in the South China Sea. Bruno Maçães, a former Europe minister for Portugal, states that there is high chance for Russia and China to form one single bloc as both nations have obsessed with overturning American-led global power. [4] Additionally, the United States’ economic sanctions on both countries force them to rely on each other in both economic and political areas. Many policy makers and analysis would agree that the United States has been losing diplomatic ground over the South China Sea disputes.

Third, the Philippines is not the only nation that aims to pursue independent foreign policy in Southeast Asia. In the article ASEAN Seeks Cautious Balance between the United States and China in Times of Growing Tension, I have argued that ASEAN nations have chosen to a neutral attitude towards major powers to maintain regional stability and mutual economic development that allow the organization to continue flourishing in its own backyard (5). Even U.S. traditional allies like Thailand and the Philippines surprisingly have chosen to act on their national interests over alliance with the United States. That is, policy makers should view ASEAN’s independent foreign policy as the critical loss for American foreign relations.

In conclusion, the arrival of Russian warships in Manila on Monday signaled urgency for the U.S. to engage more in the region. It has witnessed that the Philippines’ independent foreign policy is becoming a domino effect in Southeast Asia in which all ASEAN nations refuse to choose side and act on their interests. As a result, the U.S. is facing loss of traditional alliances in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the article predicts that Russian presence in South China Sea would benefit China and ultimately leads to a China-Russia coalition against the U.S. hegemonic power. Finally, the Philippines’ independent foreign policy leads to the most undesirable outcome to American policy makers, which is providing opportunity for Russia, the U.S. former enemy to re-engage in Asia-Pacific politics.

Mai Phan is a junior at Lebanon Valley College where she studies Global Studies and Politics. She is the Journal’s 2018-19 Correspondent for Southeast Asian Affairs.

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