MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte is set to visit Russia next week to meet President Vladimir Putin, as the Filipino leader seeks to strengthen defense and trade ties with the rival of Manila’s strongest ally, Washington.
Duterte will be in Russia from May 22 to 26 for an official visit that will seek to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries, according to Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Maria Cleofe Natividad.
The highlight of the President's visit to Russia will be his May 25 meeting with Putin, for whom the Filipino leader has repeatedly expressed his admiration.
“We believe it will mark a new chapter in the Philippines-Russia relations. We also see this visit as an indication of our strong common desire to enhance and strengthen bilateral relations,” Natividad told reporters Friday in a press briefing in Malacañang.
“We consider this visit as a landmark that will send a strong message of the Philippines’ commitment to seek new partnerships and strengthen relations with non traditional partners such as Russia.”
Duterte will be visiting Russia upon Putin’s invitation, which was extended when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru in November last year.
The President’s visit, Cleofe said, is part of his vow to pursue an independent foreign policy. The president has been seeking to strengthen the Philippines’ ties with Russia and China, two of the strongest rivals of the United States, the country’s treaty ally.
The firebrand leader has lambasted the US for criticizing his war on drugs and has turned to Russia and China for the procurement of arms and to court investments.
While Duterte has visited China twice in less than a year since assuming office, he yet to accept US President Donald Trump’s invitation for him to visit the White House.
Despite Duterte’s warmth towards Russia, Natividad said this does not mean that the Philippines was paying less importance to its relations with its traditional allies such as the US.
“An independent foreign policy does not mean it will diminish our partnership, our relations with our traditional partners. We are seeking to enrich our partnership with counties that share mutual interest with us and with whom we can pursue our national interest,” she said.
The two countries are expected to sign an agreement on defense cooperation during Duterte’s visit, but Natividad said there has yet to be talks on a possible treaty that would allow Russian troops to visit the Philippines on a regular basis, similar to what American troops are enjoying under the Visiting Forces Agreement.
“As you are aware, the Russian warships have already visited the Philippines twice this year so it is more into that aspect of becoming more familiar with each other’s competence. There is no discussion at the moment in terms of joint exercises or visiting forces,” Natividad said.
The Duterte- Putin talks may also pave the way for the Philippines to look at the possible procurement of arms from Russia, Natividad said. This amid proposals in the US to restrict its arms supply to the Philippines due to Duterte’s drug war.
“There is really nothing that would stop Russia from participating in the modernization program of the Philippines and [Defense] Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana has already mentioned [that] the Philippines is looking for partnership with countries wherein we can get the best deals and also the ones most compatible with the defense needs of the Philippines, especially with the aspect of inter-operability,” she said.
Aside from the agreement on defense cooperation, Russia and the Philippines will also sign pacts on mutual legal assistance, trade and investment, peaceful use of nuclear energy, and culture.
Duterte will also bring with him a business delegation, as the Philippines seeks to improve economic ties with Russia, which Natividad said has more room to grow.
“Both the Philippines and Russia recognize that there is a need to explore untapped opportunities for mutually beneficial economic relations. At the moment, Russian investments in the Philippines are very modest. With this visit of the President, we hope to correct that,” she said.
According to Natividad, bilateral trade between Russia and the Philippines in 2016 totaled only to $226 million. The Philippines experienced a trade deficit, only exporting $49 million worth of goods to Russia.
Duterte is also set to give a policy speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where he is expected to articulate his government’s commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy anchored foremost on national interest considerations, Natividad said.
Capping Duterte’s visit to Russia will be his meeting with the Filipino community there. There are about 5,000 Filipinos in Russia, said Natividad, and about 75 percent of absentee voters there chose Duterte in the May 2016 elections.