While it should recognise international sensitivities around its deal to purchase helicopters from Russia, the Philippines must be prepared to put its security first, Joshua Espeña writes.
Last November, the Philippines procured 16 Russian helicopters for the Philippine Air Force worth $249 million. Four months later, many of the country’s allies and partners began ramping up sanctions against Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine.
Without the war, this might have been a routine way for policymakers in the two countries to hone previously underappreciated Philippines-Russia relations at the same time as shoring up the Philippines’ national security. However, bilateral relations prosper or wither on whether they support national objectives in the global environment – and the global environment changed drastically in February.
At first, the Philippine Department of National Defence stated that it was determined to honour the deal with Russia, but it has now changed tone. It has said it will review the procurement instead, though the deal seems unlikely to fall through completely.
Given this change to the situation and the benefit of hindsight, what should the government do?
At the end of the day, the primary goal of security policy is to deter threats and avoid war – and, when war is unavoidable, win that war. For context, the Philippines has developed a strategic culture where it relied too much on the American security umbrella, leaving the country’s armed forces army-centric, internal-security oriented, and poorly prepared to confront multi-domain threats in future wars.
Clearly, its defence needs upgrading, but considering the precarious security situation in the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines must also carefully protect its already constrained resources. The key practical question then emerges: is it a good deal?
The defence budget has not been a priority in the Philippines due to socio-political and developmental constraints. The country’s defence budget increased only modestly in the last decade, from $2.9 billion in 2012 to approximately $4.4 billion in 2022.
This may seem reasonable for the country’s size, but with the budget’s focus on internal security and pension allocations, the country has under-resourced efforts to modernise its military technology.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program, which heads these efforts, has been embroiled in controversy. One example was a purchase of frigates that was allegedly marred by political interference.
Whether this controversy could affect the AFP operationally or not, it serves as a precedent when considering whether the helicopter purchase with Russia should go ahead.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s choices in the region have been described as ‘Philippinedisation’ – defined as a ‘process whereby a weaker state, backed by a powerful country, goes through great lengths in temporarily refraining from opposing a neighbouring great power by resorting to economic and diplomatic rapprochements at the strategic level but strengthening its national security infrastructure on the operational level with an eye for potential conflict in the foreseeable future.’
It is in this context that the country sought sources of defence materiel apart from the United States, tapping into the Russian defence market for military capacity, but also to signal conflict-avoidance with China in the region.
The ongoing war on Ukraine can be mistaken as mostly a matter of principle in the Indo-Pacific, but it has very real practical implications for international security, and the Philippines knows this. The countries of the region must respond not just out of principle, but also pragmatically.
It is not a matter of if, but when and how the norm-shattering war on Ukraine will eventually affect the region – that is, China may be emboldened to further its assertiveness in the maritime space. This is something the Philippines must prepare for.
While it should recognise the international sensitivities entailed in the deal, the Philippines’ security is at stake, and the country must make a pragmatic choice to put its security first.
It must be decided purely on whether and how the new equipment can be integrated into the AFP’s ability to fight, protect external and internal security, and provide the humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities the Philippines’ defence apparatus prides itself on.