Asia's Game of Thrones
Moscow and Manila’s Military Flirtation

The budding relationship between Russia and the Philippines is bearing its first fruit, as the two sides discuss joint military exchanges. Reuters:

The Philippines is finalizing a security deal with Russia allowing the two countries’ leaders to exchange visits and observe military drills, a minister said on Monday, at the same time assuring the United States that ties with Moscow will not affect its alliance with its traditional ally.

Two Russian warships made port calls in Manila last week with President Rodrigo Duterte touring an anti-submarine vessel, saying he hoped Moscow would become his country’s ally and protector. […]

“We will observe their exercises,” Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told reporters during the military’s traditional New Year’s call at the main army base in Manila.

“If we need their expertise, then we will join the exercises. That’s the framework of the memorandum of understanding that is going to be signed. It could be a joint exercises but, initially, it’s going to be exchange of visits.” […]

“It’s not similar to the U.S. which is a treaty, Mutual Defence Treaty, which mandates them to help us in case we’re attacked,” he said. “We won’t have that with Russia. The MOU is about exchange of military personnel, visits and observation of exercises.”

For now, the significance of the Philippines-Russia talks is more symbolic than tangible; it is unclear how Manila’s military posture is improved by merely observing Russian drills. And Philippine officials are clearly walking a fine line as they tout the new engagement, quick to point out the limited nature of the MOU and stressing that cooperation with Russia will not come at the expense of the U.S. military relationship.

Despite these assurances, however, the news is an embarrassing blow to Washington. When Duterte announced in October his plans to re-align with Russia and China, some American diplomats dismissed such rhetoric as posturing from a notoriously loose-lipped president. But Duterte is clearly taking steps to put his Russia pivot into practice, and the Russians are relishing the chance to taunt the U.S. over human rights as they cozy up to a longtime American ally.

With their latest courtship, Manila and Moscow are sending two unwelcome messages to Washington. The Philippines is signaling that it is happy to explore other options if the United States fails to come through: a major weapons deal scuttled by Congress, for instance, may now be fulfilled by Russia. Moscow, meanwhile, is signaling that it has the global clout to operate freely in territory once considered to be safely pro-American. Neither development bodes well for the global balance of power in the waning days of the Obama administration.

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