• Building strategic relations with Russia: The way forward

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    MERLIZA M. MAKINANO

    THE United States of America – a treaty ally – increasingly reinforces its America First policy, and as analysts have argued, is retreating from its traditional global leadership role.

    During his second State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte reaffirmed his pledge to pursue an independent foreign policy and noted his administration’s “…various initiatives to advance our national interest in the global community.”

    It has been 41 years since the Philippines established diplomatic relations with the then Soviet Union. Yet, Philippine relations with Russia have been limited, and at best, low-key. Now more than ever is an opportune time for the Philippines to pursue deeper engagement with Russia and take on the role as Russia’s link to the region.

    In 2016, President Putin and President Duterte agreed to enhance relations and increase cooperation on defense, economic and socio-cultural matters. Subsequently, 10 cooperation agreements were signed this year on security, trade, tourism, agriculture, transportation, science and culture and the arts.

    But where do we focus on building stronger relations with Russia?

    Closer economic ties. According to the Department of Trade and Industry, in 2015 Russia was the Philippines’ 31st trading partner (out of 223), 44th export market (out of 211), and 27th import supplier (out of 203). We can focus on agricultural exports. Russia’s reported agreement to raise the value of Philippine agricultural imports, from $46 million to $2.5 billion annually during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Lima, is a step in the right direction.

    Security cooperation. The defense department signed a cooperation agreement with Russia last May on training and seminars, focusing on military education, military medicine, and military history. The agreement also facilitates consultations, naval port calls, and observer participation in military exercises. An agreement was also signed on intelligence sharing in addressing security threats. Beyond this, a necessary step in deepening and enhancing security cooperation is to establish respective military and police attaches. Russia’s vast expertise can also be tapped in addressing cyber security threats.

    Infrastructure development. Russia can assist, as we usher in the “Golden Age of Infrastructure” in the Philippines, where the government plans to increase spending on infrastructure from 5 percent of GDP in 2017 to 7 percent by 2022 (approximately $160 to 180 billion). Scholars have pointed out that inter-island connectivity can spur inclusive and equitable growth. Russia has extensive expertise in building infrastructure across bodies of water, such as the bridges of St. Petersburg and Russky Island. The Moscow subway system could also serve as a model to ease Manila’s perennial traffic woes.

    A significant aspect of deepening Philippine-Russian relations is to promote people-to-people exchanges.

    Tourism. We could benefit from a bigger share of Russian tourists. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO), in 2015 Russia was the sixth biggest source of tourists worldwide, with Russians spending $35 billion during their overseas trips. Yet, according to the Department of Tourism, a meager 28,000 Russian tourists visited the Philippines in 2016, an 11 percent increase from 2015 figures. Even with the Russia-Philippines air services agreement and 30-day visa-free arrangement, the Philippines lags behind its Asean neighbors in terms of tourist arrivals. The Philippine tropical climate, better beaches, and world-class surfing spots would be an attractive respite from the cold Russian winter.

    Labor. The Department of Labor and Employment considers Russia as an emerging destination for professional and skilled workers. In 2014, about 4,000 overseas Filipino workers were deployed in Russia. The Philippines should work to increase that figure.

    Academic exchanges. There is the need to spur interest among Filipino students and scholars to study at Russian academic institutions. The Development Academy of the Philippines has signed agreements on academic collaboration with the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as with the Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping. Among others, the University of the Philippines also has an academic exchange agreement with Moscow State University. Further, Philippine academics have participated in the Russia–Asean University Forum, together with the Russian academic community and members of the Asean University Network, organized as part of the Eastern Economic Forum. We need to nurture and strengthen these engagements.

    Philippines as a nexus. By deepening Philippine-Russia relations, the Philippines can also serve as Russia’s gateway to Asean. Russian analysts have argued that the Philippines can play a key role in Russia’s vision to establish a free trade agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Asean. Russia’s renewed and strengthened relations with the Philippines can add value, and help gain traction in winning the support of other Asean members.

    With a deeper engagement with Russia, combined with this administration’s intensified relations with China, and the country’s traditional ally the US still by its side, the next step would be for the Philippines to serve a key role in Asia—as the nexus for US-China-Russian relations. The Philippines can be the center of Asian focus and become the linchpin of Russia’s engagement in the region. As such, not only do we pursue an independent foreign policy and promote our national interests, but we also help shape the region, and consequently, the international community.

    The author earned a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and a Master in International Relations (with merit) from the Victoria University of Wellington. She finished her BA in Political Science from the University of the Philippines–Diliman.

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