The timing of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ trip to the Philippines this week couldn’t have been better, coming just as it celebrated a victory against Islamist militants in Marawi City – with a critical dose of help from the U.S. military.
But as Mattis prepared to meet President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday, five Russian warships were parked off the Philippines and Moscow was preparing to formally hand over thousands of assault rifles, a million rounds of ammunition and 20 army trucks at a public ceremony on Wednesday.
Duterte, known for his strident anti-American rhetoric, has made no secret of his plans to cultivate ties with America’s rivals, Russia and China. Those efforts appear to be starting to bear fruit.
Just before he meets Mattis, Duterte was scheduled to sit down with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday, who, like Mattis, was attending a gathering of Asian defense ministers north of Manila. Shoigu also signed two military deals, including the procurement of unspecified equipment.
On Wednesday, Duterte was scheduled to visit a Russian anti-submarine ship, the Admiral Pantaleyev, docked in Manila.
U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim played down any U.S. concerns about Duterte’s outreach to China and Russia and noted that the United States, a former colonial power, was the country’s only treaty ally, with far deeper ties in the Philippines.
“I‘m not really threatened by this notion that China or Russia are providing some military equipment to the Philippines,” Kim told a small group of reporters traveling with Mattis.
“We have been providing very important equipment to the Philippines for many, many years. The fact that the Chinese and the Russians have provided some rifles, I‘m not sure is really such a cause for concern for the United States.”
Duterte’s often profanity-laden tirades against the United States have become his trademark during his year-old presidency, and he has chided Washington for treating his country “like a dog,” despite the longstanding U.S. assistance.
Still, Duterte’s rhetoric has been inconsistent, and he warmly greeted visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in August, calling himself a “humble friend” of the United States at the time.
Ahead of a visit by U.S. President Donald Trump to the Philippines, the U.S. envoy cited an improvement in “tone and substance” in bilateral ties over the 10 months since he’s been in his post.
“President Duterte has made clear that even as he pursues improved relations with countries like China and Russia, he will continue to focus on making sure that the U.S.-Philippines alliance remains strong,” Kim said.