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Russian warships visit Philippines; admiral suggests wider exercises

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Two Russian warships arrived in the Philippines this week as Moscow looks to play a bigger role in the contested South China Sea.

There were differing reports from Russian media as to the exact nature of the visit by the Russian destroyer Admiral Tributs and the sea tanker Boris Butomato, which arrived in Manila on Tuesday.

According to a report from Russia’s state-run Sputnik News, Russian Navy Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov said the Russian ships would be conducting joint exercises with Philippine forces to fight maritime piracy and terrorism.

The Sputnik report termed the exercises “an unprecedented navy-to-navy contact” between Russia and the Philippines.

A report from the Russian website RT.com however said the “Russian marines are expected to discuss and share tactics to help combat terrorism and piracy in the region” with an eye toward future joint exercises.

A Philippine Navy spokesperson said there would be no joint exercises in the next five days and that the current Russian visit to Manila was for goodwill purposes only. The idea of future joint exercises is under discussion, Philippine Navy public affairs officer Lued Lincuna said.

Any snap exercises between the Russia and Philippine navies are unlikely, said Carl Schuster, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. He said the Russian Navy uses a unique signaling system which makes communication difficult with other navies when operating in the close proximity needed in exercises.

“Maneuvering naval ships in close proximity can lead to costly collisions if there is any misunderstanding about the signaled maneuver and speed,” Schuster said in an email to CNN.

The Philippines is a former US territory and longtime US ally whose ties with Washington have become strained since President Rodrigo Duterte took office.

Duterte has said his country could look to Russia for military support, including arms purchases, as relations with Washington have soured.

Mikhailov said Russia would look to increase involvement in the South China Sea, where islands and shoals are subject to competing claims from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.

But Mikailov said Russia could be involved in joint military exercises that involved not only the Philippines, but also China and Malaysia, according to the Sputnik report.

“Maintaining the involvement of these regional partners is crucial for ensuring the stability of the South China Sea, where competing territorial claims continue to fuel geopolitical tensions,” the Sputnik report said.

Tensions in the area have ratcheted up in the past two years as China has reclaimed land in massive dredging operations in the Spratly Islands, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, weapons systems, ports and lighthouses.

Russian ships, including the Admiral Tributs, staged joint live-fire exercises with Chinese units in the South China Sea last September.

China continued to highlight its South China Sea presence this week, announcing that its lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had been conducting drills involving J-15 fighter jets and helicopters, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The agency’s website featured a gallery of photos from the exercises.

The South China Sea are the latest in a cruise of the Liaoning that saw it venture into the open Pacific for the first time in late December.

The Pacific leg of the cruise took the carrier and its escorts past Japan and Taiwan, both of which took notice.

“The threat of our enemy is growing day by day. We should always be maintaining our combat alertness,” said Taiwan Defense Minister Feng Shih-Kuan.

“We are taking notice of this event, which indicates China is expanding its ability to engage in maritime warfare,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

By Brad Lendon