PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte will fly to Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he seeks to enhance defense and trade ties with Russia.
In a news conference in Malacañang on Friday, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Maria Cleofe Natividad said Duterte will be in Russia from May 22 to 26 for an official visit.
“It will be the first visit of the President to Russia and we believe it will mark a new chapter in Philippine-Russia relations. We also see this visit as an indication of our strong common desire to enhance and strengthen bilateral relations,” Natividad told reporters.
“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,” she added.
The highlight of the President’s visit to Russia will be his bilateral meeting with Putin, for whom Duterte has repeatedly expressed admiration.
Duterte will be visiting Russia upon Putin’s invitation, which was extended when the two leaders met at the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Lima, Peru in November last year.
Natividad said the President’s visit to Russia is part of his aims to pursue an independent foreign policy.
“We believe that the President’s visit will be the start of a strong and enduring partnership between the Philippines and Russia that is multi-dimensional, mutually beneficial and will be in keeping with the principles of sovereignty, non-interference and equality,” she said.
Duterte has been seeking to strengthen the Philippines’ ties with Russia and China, rivals of the United States, the Philippines’ oldest ally, on the global stage.
Natividad said this does not mean the Philippines will pay less importance to its relations with traditional allies such as the US.
“An independent foreign policy does not mean that it will diminish our partnership, our relations with our traditional partners but we are seeking to enrich our partnership with countries that share mutual interest with us and with whom we can pursue our national interest,” she said.
The two countries are expected to sign a defense cooperation agreement, a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the Russian and Philippine security councils, a treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal cases, and an extradition treaty.
Natividad said the defense agreement, which will deal specifically with “military and technical cooperation,” will set the stage for the Philippines’ possible acquisition of defense assets from Russia. This comes amid proposals in the US to restrict its arms supply to the Philippines because of Duterte’s drug war.
“The agreement on military technical cooperation will pave the way for the Philippines to explore a possibility of military procurement from Russia. And there is really nothing that would stop Russia from participating in the modernization program, defense modernization program of the Philippines,” Natividad said.
“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 that would be most compatible with the defense and needs of the Philippines especially in the aspect of interoperability,” she added.
Lorenzana earlier confirmed he would sign a defense cooperation deal with Russia’s defense ministry involving information sharing, training, and technical cooperation.
But Natividad said there were no talks on a 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 that we are looking at, and there is no discussion at the moment in terms of, you know, joint exercises, or status as visiting forces,” she explained.
Business delegation to join
The Philippine leader will also a have bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He is scheduled to travel later to St. Petersburg to visit a military shipyard and attend the Russia Business Forum.
“The forum would be an opportune time to share with the Russian companies the benefits of doing business in the Philippines and the very positive investment climate, especially in such areas such as infrastructure, energy, transportation, tourism and others,” she said.
Russia and the Philippines will also sign pacts on trade and investment, the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and culture.
Duterte will bring with him a business delegation, as the Philippines seeks to improve economic ties with Russia.
“Both the Philippines and Russia recognize that there is a need also to explore the many untapped opportunities for mutually beneficial economic relations. At the moment, Russian investments in the Philippines are very modest. And with this visit of the President, we hope we can start to correct that,” Natividad said.
Bilateral trade between Russia and the Philippines totaled only $226 million last year. The Philippines experienced a trade deficit, exporting only $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 administration’s commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy that is anchored foremost on national interest considerations,” Natividad said.
Capping Duterte’s visit to Russia will be a meeting with the Filipino community there.
There are about 5,000 Filipinos in Russia, and about 75 percent of absentee voters there voted for Duterte in the May 2016 elections.
“The President is going to meet the Filipinos not only in Moscow but in the other nearby countries bordering Russia. And we understand that they are very strong supporters of the President and they are eagerly awaiting to hear from the President the developments in the Philippines,” she said.