Since Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016, the Philippines President has been working to construct an “independent foreign policy,” whereby the country forms strategic relationships with non-traditional partners. Duterte has defined this strategy as a shift away from the country’s dependence on the United States, a former colonizer, and toward a diversified set of bilateral relationships that maximize autonomy, security, and prosperity. This foreign policy objective has given rise to stronger relations with China and Russia, which Duterte has courted through diplomatic visits and gushing praise.
Through this foreign policy agenda, Duterte has sought to distance the Philippines from the United States. In February, Duterte announced the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Enacted in 1999, VFA governed the conduct of visiting American soldiers and served as the foundation for joint military exercises and humanitarian work. With the Philippines serving as a buffer against Chinese influence, the treaty’s termination weakens Washington’s’ strategic influence in the region.
Soon after the VFA announcement, Duterte announced the creation of a robust, equal, albeit informal, partnership with Russia. This recent partnership highlights a significant juncture in global politics: the departure of a long-standing U.S. ally seeking to align itself amongst a growing bloc led by Russia and China.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an unexpected opportunity to cement relations between Russia and the Philippines. Russia’s announcement of a vaccine and the Philippines’ recent decision to further develop and manufacture the Russian research institute Gamaleya’s COVID-19 vaccine demonstrates the two nations’ strengthening partnership. Clinical trials for the vaccine are slated to begin in the Philippines by mid-October and potentially run until March 2021. Russia already granted regulatory approval for its COVID-19 vaccine in early August, allowing for limited use of the vaccine outside of clinical trials. Nevertheless, Russia will be conducting the first two phases of clinical trials in September, with the Philippines overseeing the last round of trials in the following month. If Russia and the Philippines’ corner-cutting clinical trial strategy works, the two nations will have a marketable vaccine well before others. If not, their international status will likely suffer due to the duo’s failure to follow rigorous public health standards.
In addition to supporting Russia’s vaccine development, Duterte has declared that the Philippines will “give preference” to vaccines developed by Russia or China. The Philippines President even volunteered himself as a trial subject, stating, “When the vaccine arrives, I will inject it publicly…If it works on me, it will work on everyone.”
To Russia and China, the Philippines possesses significant strategic importance, especially considering its geopolitical value to United States security. Since the signing of the mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines in 1951, relations between the two countries have been guided by a similar strategic outlook. In the 21st century, this was seen through Chinese military containment. A strong relationship with the Philippines meant the United States could maintain a presence in the South China Sea and limit China’s regional influence at a time when the country’s economic power was growing. For China, this meant a strong relationship with the Philippines translated to a weakening of U.S. influence in its own neighborhood.
Similarly, Russia’s partnership with the Philippines is based off of zero-sum grounds: a weaker United States makes for a stronger Russia. In no realm is this notion clearer than with the pandemic and the race to develop a vaccine. First place guarantees national pride and international prestige, much akin to a victory in the Olympics. Thus, it is no surprise Russia named the vaccine Sputnik V — a reference to Russia’s 1957 space race victory over the United States.
Prior to Duterte’s election, the two nations have slowly improved relations and worked together in a bilateral manner with less of a global audience. In 2008, the Philippine Embassy in Moscow developed regulations to support the immigration of Filipino nationals working in the Russian household services sector. The move was a response to an increase in Russian desire for service workers and provided a way for the Philippines to display its culture abroad.
After Duterte’s election, the two nations have added economic and security relations to their roster. In 2017, Russia signed a Memorandum of Agreement to increase the purchase of Philippine agricultural products from 46 million USD to 2.5 billion USD. The Philippines has in turn opened up its market to certain Russian automobile firms. Furthermore, in 2017, the Russian navy made a port call in Manila, docking its ships in an effort to improve military relations. The Philippines returned the gesture in 2018, docking the BRP Tarlac in Vladivostok, Russia.
For China, a partnership with the Philippines will significantly increase the likelihood of its claims in the South China Sea being recognized. As China’s relations with neighboring Vietnam deteriorate, the Philippines would serve as an essential ally in the region. In the years following Duterte’s election, Chinese efforts to improve bilateral relations have increased significantly. China pledged to invest in the nation through the Belt and Road Initiative and enhance economic cooperation in infrastructure, agriculture, and other areas. The two also attempted to cooperate in joint oil exploration of the region, but sovereignty disputes stalled any progress.
In June, however, the Philippines suspended the termination of VFA, yet did not renounce its public partnership with Russia or China, proving Duterte can have his cake and eat it too. Pausing plans to terminate the agreement dealt a blow to both Russian and Chinese efforts to push U.S. influence to the sidelines. Given its faltering relationship with the U.S., the Philippines could prove to be a soft power battleground with both nations attempting to strengthen their relationship with the Philippines vis-a-vis the United States.
Moving forward, the Philippines can be expected to continue shifting away from the United States and closer to Russia and China. And, as a result, U.S. rivalry with China and Russia will likely intensify. Offering concessions to prevent the dissolution of VFA and maintaining a strategic alliance with the Philippines will be essential for a U.S. presence in the South China Sea throughout the coming decade. If the Philippines continues on its current trajectory, however, American leadership in the region under Pax Americana will be significantly hampered, while Chinese and Russian influence will continue to grow.