Manila moves toward major arms purchase from Russia

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is currently on an extended official visit to Moscow at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, where he will discuss “possible areas to further expand or enhance our current defense cooperation and to deepen that relationship,” according to Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong.

Lorenzana declared that he was looking into the acquisition of two Kilo-class diesel electric submarines from Moscow, and Philippine military sources stated that the Russian government had offered a “soft-loan,” with below market interest rates, to enable the purchase. Philippine Navy Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad told the press on Wednesday that Manila had asked the Vietnamese Navy, which has six Russian Kilo-class subs, to assist in training Filipino sailors should the purchase go through.

In addition to submarines, Lorenzana is weighing other large military purchases. Along with Defense Undersecretary for Finance and Materiel Raymundo Elefante, he visited the Moscow-hosted International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2018,” where they were reported to be “window shopping” for “big-ticket military platforms.”

Lorenzana’s visit is a further development in the military ties between Moscow and Manila, which formally commenced when Lorenzana and Shoygu signed a Military-Technical Cooperation Agreement in October 2017. The agreement set terms for military cooperation in areas of research, production support, the exchange of experts and the joint training of personnel. The opening of military ties was marked by Moscow’s donation of five thousand assault rifles, a million rounds of ammunition, and 20 army trucks.

Next month, in the wake of Lorenzana’s visit, the BRP Tarlac, the Philippines’ largest amphibious warfare vessel, will sail to Vladivostok for the country’s first official port visit to Russia.

The Pentagon, which has been systematically escalating military tensions with Russia, has not taken kindly to Washington’s former colony improving relations with Moscow. Randall Schriver, assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs in the US Defense Department, visited Manila last week. During a roundtable discussion at the US Embassy he told reporters that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte “should think very carefully” about purchasing equipment from Russia. “I don’t think that is a helpful thing to the alliance [between the US and the Philippines].”

Duterte responded angrily in a press conference, “You state your case why you are against my country acquiring submarines. Give me the reason why and make it public. You want us to remain backward.”

Looking to restabilize military ties between Washington and Manila, three leading cabinet members of the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sent a secret, joint letter to Duterte through US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim. In a speech delivered to the Eastern Mindanao Command of the Philippine Military, Duterte made the letter public and ridiculed it.

According to Duterte’s reading, the letter, addressed to “His Excellence Rodrigo Roa Duterte,” opened, “The US-Philippines Alliance is an enduring partnership built on shared history and values.” This “special relationship” would “grow stronger,” as “our nations … do even more to integrate our economic and security concerns.… We hope you share our view that your nation’s selection of US partners for future defense procurement is a mutually advantageous and strategically important way to strengthen and deepen the steadfast bond between our …” Here Duterte cut off.

“It’s hard to say we are friends,” he declared. “Remember we are friends because you made us a colony years ago. Don’t say friend, friend. This wasn’t a friendship we agreed upon. It was a friendship imposed upon us because you won the Spanish-American War. The Philippines was handed to you like chattel.”

In a separate speech delivered on Tuesday, Duterte repeated an earlier claim that the CIA was plotting to assassinate him. “They’ll be the ones to kill me, those sons of bitches.”

The entire situation is marked by profound volatility. While Duterte publicly denounces Washington, in a manner unprecedented in the history of Philippine bourgeois politics, the Philippine military reported that construction began in April at one of five locations for the basing of US forces and material in the country in keeping with the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

At the heart of this volatility are two factors: the global re-emergence of class struggle and Washington’s war drive against China. Duterte is looking to secure arms above all to prosecute and escalate his campaign of domestic repression, which he has carried out in the name of a war on drugs. Of the five thousand assault rifles supplied by Moscow in October 2017, only 10 percent went to the military while the remaining 90 percent were allocated to the police.

From July 1, 2016 to May 15, 2018, the police killed 4,279 people in their anti-drug campaign, according to official government statistics. The death toll from extrajudicial killings is several times larger, although more difficult to calculate exactly. The Duterte administration at the close of 2017, listed as one of its “key accomplishments” in the war on drugs, an estimated 16,355 additional homicides in 2017 alone, openly taking credit for this genocide. In every instance, the target of these killings is the poor.

Washington is perfectly content to fund and arm this fascistic rampage. This was made clear from the beginning by then Secretary of State John Kerry who offered Duterte $32 million in US aid to fund his war on drugs. They would only do so, however, provided that Duterte toed Washington’s geopolitical line and serve as a proxy of US imperialism in its escalating confrontations with China.

Duterte, in a similar fashion to former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has sought to secure Chinese investment and improve diplomatic ties with Beijing, rolling back the aggressive policies of his predecessor President Benigno Aquino III, who followed Washington’s every dictate. Arroyo commented on this in a televised interview in March, “When I was President, I focused on closer economic and business ties with China. That is the policy of President Duterte today, very similar to mine.”

Nothing in this situation is stable, however, and certainly not the improving ties with Beijing. Duterte recently has taken to speaking in an increasingly sharp manner regarding the disputed waters of the South China Sea. There were three “red lines” whose violation would lead “to war” with China: Chinese construction on the disputed Scarborough shoal, disruption of supplies to the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the Spratlys, and any “unilateral exploitation of resources” by China in the South China Sea.

It is with an eye to this possible eventuality, that Manila is looking to secure two submarines which would be used to patrol the disputed waters of the South China Sea.