South China Sea: Philippine's Rodrigo Duterte courts Russia in snub to US

Controversial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has now declared he wants Russia to be his country’s ally and protector, after months of fiery rhetoric aimed at the United States.

“We welcome our Russian friends. Anytime you want to dock here for anything, for play, to replenish supplies or maybe to be our ally to protect us,” Mr Duterte said while visiting a Russian anti-submarine vessel docked in Manila.

“Friends, long live…that’s from the heart,” he told top Russian naval officers, thumping his chest.

The comments came after Russia’s ambassador to the Philippines, Igor Khovaev, said his country is ready to supply the Philippines with sophisticated weapons.

Deals under discussion included the purchases of drones and sniper rifles.

Mr Duterte signalled during a rare visit to the Philippines of two Russian warships that he will allow joint military exercises between the Philippines and Russia, and declared he intends to visit Russia in April.

The Russian warships arrived in Manila last week with an eye-catching “charm offensive” that included Russian marines showing off their martial arts skills in a Manila park.

The former mayor of southern Davao City has not yet visited the US, his country’s closest ally for more than 60 years.

Since being swept office at elections in May last year Mr Duterte has thrown the Philippines’ future relations with the US into question as he sought closer ties with China, threatening to “separate” from the US alliance, end joint exercises and remove US troops from the Philippines.

Mr Duterte’s reaching out to Russia at a time of heightened tensions between the out-going US administration and Russia over telephone hacking during the US election is a further blow to Barack Obama’s key strategy to “pivot” US forces and diplomatic emphasis to Asia.

However defence analysts point out that despite Mr Duterte’s threats, the Philippine’s key agreements and arrangements with the US remain in place, including a treaty allowing US troops, ships and planes to rotate through the country’s military bases, including the strategic Subic Bay that was once America’s largest military installation outside US borders.

Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based analyst, said Donald Trump’s election in the US could see a turnabout in US-Philippine relations.

Mr Trump has already reportedly praised Mr Duterte’s crackdown on drugs that has left more than 6200 people dead, indicating he will be less tough than Mr Obama’s administration on human rights in other countries.

The US’s criticism of the killings prompted Mr Duterte to tell Mr Obama to “go to hell” and to call him the “son of a whore.”

Professor Heydarian said Mr Trump’s tough approach to China is likely to benefit the Philippines.

“For Duterte, this means the Philippines could step back and let the two superpowers slug it out in the high seas, while Manila tries to reap the benefits of friendly ties with Beijing and Washington,” said Professor Heydarian, the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

“For the Philippine leader it is best to keep out of the clash of the titans,” he said.

Mr Duterte, who has been described as the “Trump of Asia,” has praised Mr Trump and said he hopes to boost business with the US during his time in office.

In November, Mr Duterte appointed Philippine real estate tycoon Jose Antonio to be US trade envoy.

Mr Antonio built the almost completed US$150 million 57-storey Trump Tower in Manila, through his Century Propertries Group.

“I’ve always loved the Philippines,” Mr Trump says the Trump Tower Manila website. “I think it’s just a special place and Manila is one of Asia’s spectacular cities,” he says.

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