On Jan. 3, two large naval vessels from Russia's Pacific Fleet — an anti-submarine ship and a sea tanker — docked at Manila's South Harbor for a four-day visit, marking the first navy-to-navy contact between the two countries. Russian Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov, the Pacific Fleet deputy commander who led the visit, said Russia hopes to discuss possible joint anti-piracy drills and enhanced counterterrorism cooperation with the Philippines.
Compared with those of China, the United States and Japan, Russia's strategic and maritime security interests in the South China Sea are relatively limited. The needs of the Russian navy in the region have largely been met through security cooperation with Vietnam, which has deepened as Hanoi seeks to offset China's rising military power and maritime presence. Against this backdrop, Russia is unlikely to go to great lengths to boost cooperation with the Philippines.
Nonetheless, from Moscow's perspective, tighter relations with Manila serve as an additional hedge against China's regional influence and a way to potentially divide Washington and the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, undermining U.S. interests in the region. Moreover, Russia would be happy to help modernize the Philippine military (much as it did for Vietnam), not least in the hopes of cultivating new markets for Russian arms. In November, Russia offered to sell the Philippines variants of the AK-47 assault rifle after Duterte cancelled a similar arms deal with the United States.
From the Philippines' perspective, stronger ties with Moscow would be a natural means by which to internationalize otherwise local South China Sea disputes, thus contributing to regional stability or at least raising the cost of military action for countries such as China. Deeper ties with Russia would also help the Philippines decrease its reliance on the United States, enabling Manila to maintain a more balanced foreign policy in the region. So it is unsurprising to see Moscow and Manila push for closer ties and deepened security cooperation, especially on issues — such as piracy and terrorism — of real concern to both. Still, the extent of that cooperation will be limited by Russia's relatively low interest in the South China Sea security competition.