Russians in Manila Bay? What is afoot?
Russian warships anchored in the Philippines last week for the first time in 96 years, a sign of intensifying military diplomacy over the disputed South China Sea.
Russian naval officials and diplomats were at pains to insist they were not taking sides between China and the Philippines. Analysts said Moscow could be both expanding its presence in the region and eyeing fresh weapons sales - it has several customers in Southeast Asia already.
In a little-noticed move, the anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, flanked by a naval tug and a large tanker, entered Manila Bay on Tuesday and left on Friday, breaking up its return to Vladivostok, home of Russia's Pacific Fleet, from anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
The visit is now resonating in Beijing and across the region, given Moscow's already significant role in Vietnam's naval modernisation. Russia has sold Hanoi its first Kilo-class submarines and rebuilt the strategic port of Cam Ranh Bay, a major Soviet naval and intelligence base at the height of the cold war.
The Russian ambassador to the Philippines, Nikolay Kudashev, appeared to acknowledge the visit's sensitivity, according to local press reports. 'Naturally, we would not like to interfere or to impose in any way our will upon China and the Philippines. They are both our friends and partners,' he said, according to the Manila Bulletin.
A London-based independent security analyst, Trevor Hollingsbee, commenting on the ambassador's reported remarks, said Moscow wanted to play the 'honest broker' but Russia was increasingly looking outwards and might have concerns about China one day dominating the South China Sea. Much of the world's traded goods pass through the sea and Russian firms are prospecting for oil there.
'Some analysts believe that the recent visit to Manila by a Russian naval task group might ... have been motivated at least in part by Moscow's desire to send a message to Beijing,' Hollingsbee said.
'The visit may, though, also signal that the Russians, renowned purveyors of relatively cheap and durable weaponry, may be hoping to cash in on the Philippines Armed Forces' re-equipment programme, currently dominated by the acquisition of second-hand gear from the US.'
Chinese officials have repeatedly warned both Manila and Washington against trying to contain China by expanding military activity under the two countries' Mutual Defence Treaty.
Hollingsbee said there had been rumours since the 1990s that Russian arms firms were eyeing the Philippine market but they had come to nothing. He said Moscow might have been encouraged to pursue arms sales now by Manila's recent purchase of eight Polish PZL W-3 Solkol helicopters, which are based on old Soviet designs.
As well as being a big defence supplier to China and Vietnam, Russia has sold weapons to countries including Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar. It has yet to sell to the Philippines, however.
One retired US naval officer said that while the Russians had not formally visited Philippine waters in nearly 100 years, it had long been suspected they made frequent visits during the cold war, when Soviet submarines and reconnaissance ships plied Asian waters from Cam Ranh Bay and Vladivostok to keep watch on US bases in the Philippines. 'They've certainly been there before. I guess the key is whether we start seeing a lot more of them in future,' he said.
After extensive post-cold war cut-backs to Russian naval fleets during the 1990s, Russian defence chiefs are keen to strengthen significantly the Russian Pacific Fleet, once a serious rival to US military might in East Asia.