MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday left for Russia with a vow to improve ties with the Eurasian country, in what is considered a blow to the Philippines’ long-time ally, the United States.
Duterte will be in Russia for a week-long trip that will see him meet his “idol,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, and meet with business leaders in a bid to boost economic ties between the countries.
“Russia is a country that we must work with. There are opportunities for cooperation that cannot be ignored. With its geographic footprint in the Asia-Pacific region and its strategic interests in the region, a positive engagement is required to find areas of synergies in interests,” Duterte said in a prepared speech.
“Accompanying me to Russia are the heads of Philippine legislature and key members of my cabinet. It is a high-level delegation, befitting the level of importance my government places on writing of a new chapter of Philippines–Russia relationship.”
Duterte’s official trip to Russia will be a significant development to his earlier vow to loosen ties with the US, which he has accused of hypocrisy and interference during the administration of Barack Obama.
Russia and China have been supportive of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which has earned the condemnation of mostly western governments and institutions.
In moving closer to Russia and away from the US, Duterte stressed he was only making good on his promise to implement an “independent foreign policy,” saying “overdependence on traditional partners has limited our room to maneuver in a very dynamic international arena.”
“My visit underscores the independence of the Philippines’ foreign policy and the firm resolve to broaden the horizons of friendship and cooperation with other nations,” he said.
Defense cooperation is another sore point in the wavering Philippines-US ties under Duterte. As the US Senate mulled on restricting arms importation to the Philippines due to human rights issues, the Philippines said it is planning secure arms from China and Russia.
A possible deal to secure arms from Russia will also be on the President’s agenda. On the last day of his official visit, he will also drop by the Admiralty Shipyard in Saint Petersburg, one of the largest shipyards in Russia, underscoring the growing defense ties between the two erstwhile unlikely allies.
Boosting economic ties will also be high on the president’s agenda, bringing with him about 200 traders seeking trade opportunities.
“With the Philippines’ emphasis on sustaining our economic growth, we seek responsible economic partners who will become our new allies in development,” Duterte said. “I will let them know that the Philippines means serious business.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier said 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.
Another highlight of the president’s official visit is his delivery of a policy speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which will also give him an honorary degree.
Capping Duterte’s visit to Russia will be his meeting with the Filipino community there. Natividad said there are about 5,000 Filipinos in Russia and about 75 percent of the absentee voters there chose Duterte in the elections.