Philippines seeks helicopters, nuclear technology from US, ambassador says

Jason Gutierrez and Jeoffrey Maitem
2022.08.15
Manila
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Philippines seeks helicopters, nuclear technology from US, ambassador says U.S. Army troops disembark from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during a training exercise with their Philippine counterparts at Fort Magsaysay, north of Manila, April 20, 2015.
Ted Aljibe/AFP

The Philippines is looking to acquire heavy-lift military helicopters and nuclear power technology from the United States after canceling a similar chopper deal with Russia over fears of U.S. sanctions, Manila’s envoy to Washington said Monday. 

The Philippines Department of National Defense said last week that it had formed a committee to formalize the termination of a contract valued at 12.7 billion pesos (U.S. $244.2 million) to buy 16 Russian-made Mil Mi-17 helicopters under a deal where Moscow agreed to include a 17th one at no extra cost.

Washington did not force the Philippines to drop the deal with Russia, Ambassador Jose Romualdez told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in Manila. 

“There was no pressure. It was made clear from the very beginning, especially during the Ukraine situation, that the United States and their Western allies are putting a lot of sanctions against Russia. Everybody knows that,” Romualdez said. “If you buy anything from Russia, you would be sanctioned.”

The Philippine government signed the deal with Russia last November but, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, then-President Rodrigo Duterte moved to cancel the purchase before handing over power to new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in late June, the envoy said. 

“I think it was really prudent especially 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 hosted by FOCAP.

U.S. officials put an offer on the table to sell Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters to Manila even before cabinet officials had persuaded Duterte to scrap the Russian deal, Romualdez said.

It was a “practical thing” to acquire American helicopters because it was “cheaper for us in the end” considering that the Russian deal covered only the actual cost of the choppers and did not include provisions for repairs, the ambassador said.

Romualdez said the government wanted to recover its down payment of $38 million from Moscow, likely in the form of other weapons. 

“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.” 

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Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, speaks during the signing of an offshore wind grant from the U.S., at Ayala Triangle Gardens in Manila, Aug. 6, 2022. [Andrew Harnik pool/AP]

The Philippines and the United States are allies in a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1951 but, during his time in office, Duterte sought to distance the Southeast Asian nation from Washington. He instead looked toward China and Russia while challenging U.S. policies despite territorial wrangling between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea.

Nuclear energy

Marcos or his energy officials, meanwhile, are expected to meet with their U.S. counterparts to discuss the possibility of acquiring modular energy power plants, Romualdez said. 

“As you know the U.S. is developing a modular nuclear power plant. We are looking into it. There’s a private company in the U.S. that is offering to supply that as soon as it’s available,” Romualdez said. 

“Energy is one of our major requirements in the future. We would like to be part of the Paris climate change agreement. We want to play a major role on that one,” he said. “And so that offer being made by the U.S. to finance it and would be able to install it … that’s the best so far as far as clean energy is concerned.”

Two months ago, the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. State Department on how the country would be able to set up those technologies, he said. 

“To be able to develop nuclear energy, you need to get approval from the United Nations. They are trying to fast-track that because of climate change,” he said. 

“This modular power plant is much safer. It is easier to install. It will not take years to be able to get going. Maybe down to three to five years,” Romualdez said.

Khevin Yu, a campaigner with the environmental activist group Greenpeace, questioned whether nuclear power can be considered a form of renewable energy because uranium is used for powering reactors.   

“They should support the development of renewable energy,” Yu told BenarNews. 

“Modular nuclear energy construction will take more than a decade. What they are saying is just marketing statements that are not yet proven,” he said, stressing that a power plant in the Philippines would require obtaining uranium and expertise from other countries. 

No country in Southeast Asia has a functioning civilian nuclear power plant.

Under the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the current president’s late father, the country began construction of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in 1976 in an area about 100 km (62 miles) west of Manila.

The plant, which was being built above a major fault line, was mothballed amid safety concerns in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Romualdez conceded the Bataan project was also riddled with corruption.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Davao City, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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