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Philippines eyes US helicopters after scrapping Russian deal

Philippine officials are considering a U.S. offer to provide heavy-lift helicopters like its widely used Chinooks after Manila scrapped a deal to buy military choppers from Russiα due to fears of Western sanctions, the Philippine ambassador to Washington said Monday.

Then-President Rodrigo Duterte approved the cancellation of the signed deal to buy 16 Russiαn Mi-17 helicopters due to concerns over possible Western sanctions, which could hamper fast bank transfers of the income Filipino workers send home from the U.S. and other Western countries, Ambassador Jose Romualdez said.

Romualdez said Washington did not pressure the Philippines to drop the 12.7 billion peso (U.S. $227.7 million) deal with the Russiαns.

But following Russiα’s invasion of Ukrαine in February, countries that would purchase Russiαn equipment could face Western sanctions, he said.

“I think it was really prudent specially for President Duterte to approve the cancellation of that contract because it can save us a lot of trouble,” Romualdez told an online news conference organized by Manila-based foreign correspondents.

The U.S. offer to sell Boeing CH-47 Chinooks was discussed as early as last year by former Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and his American counterpart, Lloyd Austin, in Washington even before Duterte was persuaded by key Cabinet members to cancel the deal, Romualdez said.

One of Duterte’s Cabinet members, Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez, warned Duterte then that Western countries may withhold assistance that could help the Philippines deal with and recover from coronavirus outbreaks, two Philippine officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.

Lorenzana first confirmed the cancellation of the contract to secure Russiα’s helicopters in an interview with AP last month. After serving as defense chief under Duterte, Lorenzana has been appointed by new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to head a government agency in charge of transforming former military bases into business hubs.

Romualdez said the Philippine government under Duterte made an initial payment of about $38 million to secure the Russiαn military transport helicopters and he would recommend Marcos Jr. and his top defense and foreign officials try to ask the Russiαns to provide other weapons or equipment that would be covered by that down payment.

“Definitely we will not just simply say goodbye to that money,” Romualdez said. “It’s still a big amount as far as we’re concerned.”

A Filipino military official has said the helicopter deal would undergo a “termination process” after the Philippine decision to cancel it was made since a contract has already been signed. The Russiαns can appeal but there is little room for the Philippine government to reconsider, said the official.

Under the scrapped helicopter purchase agreement, which was signed in November, the first batch of the multipurpose helicopters would have been scheduled for delivery by Russiα’s Sovtechnoexport in about two years. Aside from the 16 helicopters, one unit should have been given for free to the Philippines, defense officials said.

The Russiαn-made helicopters could have been used for combat, search and rescue operations, and medical evacuations in the Southeast Asian archipelago, which is often lashed by typhoons and other natural disasters, Philippine officials said.

In March, the Philippines voted “yes” on a U.N. General Assembly resolution that demanded an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukrαine and the withdrawal of all Russiαn troops.

Duterte has expressed concern over the global impact of the Russiαn invasion but has not personally condemned it. When he was in office, he nurtured close ties with Russiαn President Vladimir Putin, whom he once called his “idol,” and Chinese leader Xi Jinping while frequently criticizing U.S. security policies.

The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States, which has imposed heavy sanctions on Russiα aimed at pressuring it to pull back from Ukrαine.

Due to financial constraints, the Philippines has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of the most underfunded in Asia, to deal with decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies and to defend its territories in the disputed South China Sea.