Tensions between Washington and Manila have escalated since President Duterte came to power.
Tensions between Washington and Manila have escalated since President Duterte came to power.

Russia offers military co-operation to Philippines

RUSSIA may end up playing a significant role in the hotly-disputed South China Sea this year, in a move that could shake up existing ties.

Russian ships are considering conducting joint military exercises with the Philippines to fight maritime piracy and terrorism, according to a report from Russia's state-run Sputnik News.

Russia's Pacific Fleet is amid a five-day visit to the Philippines of vessels, led by Rear Admiral Eduard Mikhailov.

This marks the third ever visit made by Russian military vessels to the Philippines, according to the Filipino Navy's Commodore Francisco Cabudao.

Speaking at the Manila harbour, Mr Mikhailov attempted to pursuade the Philippines to join forces with Russia.

"You can choose to cooperate with United States of America or to cooperate with Russia," Mikhailov said.

"But from our side we can help you in every way that you need. We are sure that in the future we'll have exercises with you. Maybe just maneuvering or maybe use of combat systems and so on."

Currently the Philippines' military remains underequipped and underfunded, leaving the country's defence force struggling to deal with attacks by jihadist terror groups in its south.

"We have an experience in fighting these [threats]," Mr Mikhailov said. "We will share to [sic] you our knowledge on these problems, how to solve piracy and terrorism."

He also indicated that other players in the region, such as China and Malaysia, could coordinate with the potential Russian-Philippine training exercises "in a few years".

The United States did not get a mention.

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador has confirmed the country is willing to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons, including aircraft and submarines, with the aim of becoming a close friend with the traditional US ally.

Russian ambassador Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev held a news conference in which he acknowledged the Philippines' intention to diversify its foreign partners.

"It's not a choice between these partners and those ones. Diversification means preserving and keeping old traditional partners and getting new ones. So Russia is ready to become a new reliable partner and close friend of the Philippines," he said.

"We don't interfere with your relations with your traditional partners and your traditional partners should respect the interest of the Philippines and Russia."

He said Russia had a range of weapons to offer.

"We are ready to supply small arms and light weapons, some aeroplanes, helicopters, submarines and many, many other weapons. Sophisticated weapons. Not the second-hand ones," Mr Khovaev said.

"Russia has a lot to offer but everything will be done in full compliance with international law."

The US government has downplayed the announcement, with a State Department spokesperson saying it will not affect how the country views its bilateral relationship with Manila.

"Our overall [military-to-military] relations remain robust, they remain multifaceted and that's the way we want to see it continue," said spokesman John Kirby in a press briefing.

He added that the relationship between the US and the Philippines remains "very, very strong".

"I'd let the Philippine government and the Russian government speak to the degree of their bilateral defence relations and how that is taking shape. I've said many times - and this is a good example of it - that foreign relations aren't binary. Right? And these choices that countries have to make are not binary choices, and every nation-state has the right to pursue bilateral relations of its own choosing.

"And so again, I would leave it to both of their governments to discuss it. What it - what I can promise you is that it won't affect how we view the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Philippines."

Meanwhile Mr Khovaev - without explicitly referring to the US - said "traditional partners" of the Philippines shouldn't be worried.

"Your traditional partners should not be concerned about the military ties ... If they are concerned, it means they need to get rid of clichés," he said.

But the move comes as the longstanding close ties between Washington and Manila turn increasingly sour in the wake of Rodrigo Duterte's presidency.

In October 2016, the controversial leader drew gasps from the United States after he announced a major shift in alliances.

"In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States," Mr Duterte told a hall of Chinese and Philippine business people. His words were met with applause as he announced "America has lost", and that he has "realigned" himself with China's ideological flow.

He even said he would go to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin.

"[I will] tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way," Mr Duterte told the Beijing audience.

Prior to that, he made global headlines after infamously calling outgoing US President Barack Obama a "son of a wh*re" and told him to "go to hell".

According to Filipino officials, Mr Duterte is expected to visit Russia in April or May this year.

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