MANILA - "The Russians are with me, so I should not be afraid."
So said President Rodrigo Duterte as he boarded a Russian warship for the second time.
Duterte visited Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag on Friday, yet another testament to growing ties between the Philippines and Russia. In January, Duterte also boarded Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs.
Russian navy vessels arrived in the Philippines on Thursday for joint exercises as part of a drive for new security ties under Duterte's revamped foreign policy, under which he is seemingly courting traditional foes of Manila's top ally, the United States.
Varyag, accompanied by fuel tanker Pechenge, are on a four-day goodwill visit to the Philippines, the second port call by Russian warships in three months.
The move is part of what Duterte describes as a pursuit of a constitutionally mandated independent foreign policy: while deviating from the country's long-standing alliance with the United States, Duterte has made it a priority to develop closer ties with Russia and China.
After visiting the Russian warship in January, Duterte also said in March that he wants to board a Chinese ship. Duterte also bared plans to visit a Japanese warship touring the disputed South China Sea.
But when US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited the Philippines in March, Duterte only sent three of his Cabinet secretaries.
RUSSIA-PH DEFENSE TIES
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said Duterte boarded the Varyag upon the invitation of the Russians.
“It was just in keeping with the invitation extended to the President to visit the ship. Their coming here is a sign of goodwill. The visit of the President was a show of goodwill. No more, no less,” Esperon told reporters after Duterte's visit.
“He is impressed [with the ship]. The President has not boarded many ships so he took time come here.”
Esperon said, Duterte’s trip to Russia will push through in May, and that the two countries might discuss defense cooperation as the administration shifts to enhancing ties with US rivals.
“The defense cooperation will be finalized when the President visits Moscow by the end of May,” Esperon said.
“The defense cooperation would come in the form of training, probably some exchange of information.”
But Hermogenes clarified that the Philippines was unlikely to seal a military alliance with Russia. The US is a treaty ally of the Philippines.
“We don’t really intend to go into alliances, which is a tighter agreement, but we can go into partnerships on mutually beneficial activities.”
Captain Lued Lincuna, director of the Philippine Navy public affairs office, said the Philippines hoped to learn from the Russians during training activities and a demonstration of advanced equipment and weapons systems.
The schedule includes training and sports activities with the flagship vessel of the Russian Pacific fleet, plus a Russian concert in a park.
Russian commander Captain Alexsei Ulyanenko said the port call would make a "significant contribution" to strengthening relations and maintaining stability in the region.
Moscow wants to help Manila combat extremism and piracy, stepping up cooperation and training in areas where the Philippines has traditionally worked closely with its former colonial master, the United States.
The relationship is expected to develop further next month when Duterte and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin witness the signing of defense agreements in Moscow.
When Duterte met Putin for the first time last year, the Philippine leader spoke at length about what he called U.S. "hypocrisy".
Duterte has instructed his defense minister to look into how the Philippines could acquire modern military equipment from Russia, including drones, night-vision gear, sniper rifles, and even helicopters. - with Reuters