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TematicheItaliaPatrol Ship Morosini docks in Manila: a turning point...

Patrol Ship Morosini docks in Manila: a turning point for military relations between Italy and the Philippines?

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On July 8th, the Offshore Patrol Vessel “Morosini” of the Italian Navy docked at the port of Manila. Rome signals its interest in the Indo-Pacific region and reopens a memorandum of military cooperation with Manila, a positive sign after some difficult moments.

On July 8th, the Offshore Patrol Vessel “Morosini” of the Italian Navy docked at the port of Manila. The visit, part of the vessel’s tour through the Indo-Pacific, will last until July 11th. The Italian Navy vessel, named after the Venetian Doge, also participated in a joint exercise with the Philippine Navy during its stay. During the event, Rear Admiral Fabio Gregori, commander of the Italian Navy Fleet, expressed Rome’s interest in supporting and strengthening naval cooperation with Manila in the Indo-Pacific region in general, and the South China Sea in particular. He emphasized the strategic relevance of the region and expressed the willingness to make future visits in the coming years.

In this context, Italian Ambassador to Manila Marco Clemente took the opportunity to express Italy’s interest in establishing a presence in the area and enhancing maritime cooperation with Manila. He declared Italy’s support for the Philippines regarding territorial disputes with the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea, especially in reference to the 2016 Arbitral Award that declared China’s territorial claims in the sea as unlawful. These statements demonstrate Italy’s interest in ensuring stability in the South China Sea and its adherence to common rules of international law, considering the region’s significant commercial importance, through which a substantial portion of global trade passes.

From the perspective of bilateral relations, the visit of the patrol ship appears to be a clear signal from Rome to strengthen military cooperation between the two countries. The Ambassador referred to the visit as a “game changer” for future collaborations. With the escalating strategic competition between China and the United States in the region and the Philippines’ progressive strategic realignment under Marcos Jr., the Philippines appears to be a potential regional partner for Italy. Moreover, a strategically aligned and stable archipelago would provide Italy an opportunity to secure significant military supplies, considering both Manila’s plans to modernize its Armed Forces and the presence of other European and non-European competitors in the Philippine market. This intention has been explicitly stated by President Sergio Mattarella on June 15th (on the occasion of the inauguration of the new Filipino ambassador in Rome) and by Ambassador Clemente, who revealed that the two countries are currently negotiating a memorandum of industrial and military cooperation.

In other words, Rome and Manila seem to be seeking a common framework to establish a solid foundation for military cooperation, which increasingly relies on strategic and commercial aspects. Currently, the interests of both countries appear to converge, especially after a turbulent decade between Manila and the Italian defense industry. The Philippines had been searching for partners to enhance its deterrence and defense capabilities since the time of President Benigno Aquino III and the rising tensions with China in the disputed waters. During that period (around 2012-2013), Italy expressed interest in supporting the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as part of Manila’s multi-year spending plan. The negotiations seemed to be heading towards a substantial supply of refurbished weaponry, including two “Maestrale” class frigates, two “Soldato” class frigates, various armored vehicles, howitzer FH70, AMX aircraft, and potentially even Eurofighters. This potentially huge supply, referred to as the “Great Italian Sale” in the Philippines, did not materialize primarily due to the Philippine reluctance to proceed with a Government-to-Government (G2G) allocation, which would have raised concerns about assigning the entire supply to Italy considering its value and magnitude. Additionally, according to some analysts, it appears that the AFP chose to prioritize public procurement procedures over G2G, which are considered more transparent and less risky for military procurement entities, known for criticism regarding the transparency of their operations. Furthermore, the presence of other European and non-European countries may have also played a role in this regard.

It is needless to say that the failure of the “Great Italian Sale” significantly cooled relations between Italy and the Philippines in this domain. In fact, there had been no attempts to reestablish relations in this regard between the two countries for several years, especially considering President Duterte’s controversial “war on drugs” and his attempts to align with Beijing, which made resuming dialogue on security and military cooperation more complex, if not impossible.

However, despite the setbacks, the Philippines has remained an interesting market for the Italian defense industry. In 2019, Leonardo UK (a subsidiary of Leonardo S.p.A.) supplied two AW159 helicopters to the Philippine Navy. Furthermore, according to the report produced by the Authorization Unit for Armament Materials (UAMA) for the Italian Parliament, in 2021, three export licenses for military materials were granted by Italy to the Philippines, including aircraft and military vehicles, imaging equipment, and large-caliber ammunition, with a total value of nearly 99 million euros. In addition to the types and values of the materials, it is noteworthy that UAMA did not record any arms transfers from Italy to the Philippines in the years preceding 2021. It is hypothesized (but not yet proven by sources) that the presence of these supplies may be the result of Manila’s strategic realignment in recent years under the Duterte administration, following failed attempts at appeasement toward Beijing.

In this context, the possibility of reopening a dialogue leading to industrial and military cooperation between the two countries is undoubtedly a positive sign, albeit with several challenges from both sides. From the Philippine perspective, it is undeniable that the need for procurement and modernization of the AFP, along with the need to enhance the archipelago’s deterrence capabilities in the disputed waters, leads the Philippines to diversify its partners, a process that has been ongoing for several years. However, Manila cannot yet claim the same credibility as other interlocutors in Southeast Asia. On one hand, there is the technical and operational incapability to efficiently implement the modernization plan (as seen in the “Great Italian Sale”). On the other hand, despite the strategic realignment under the Marcos Jr. administration, the country’s strategic trajectory could change again based on future occupants of Malacañang Palace and the coalitions supporting them.

Similarly, it is evident that security in the Indo-Pacific should become a focal point in Italy’s foreign policy, both strategically and commercially. Missions like that of the “Morosini” can be used by Rome to project its soft power abroad and signal a commitment and attention similar to other European states, such as France, albeit more or less performative. Moreover, establishing robust supply chains for defense materials could be a concrete way to demonstrate support and interest in regional partners while strengthening the production capabilities of the defense sector. The success of such commitments, however, will also depend on Italy’s ability and its institutions to coordinate and implement the supply of new armaments within the framework of G2G agreements. Compared to previous years, a recent revision of Article 537-ter of the Military Organization Code would allow the Ministry of Defense to enter into contracts for the supply of armaments with foreign states that have agreements on technical-military cooperation. The announced memorandum would fulfill the requirement outlined in the article and provide a stronger legal basis for future negotiations. However, this would require a lasting alignment between the defense industry and institutions, justifying long-term support for such operations. It is still debated whether Rome possesses the necessary technical and institutional know-how, coordination capabilities, and, above all, the intention to base a portion of its foreign and defense policy on the signing of contracts for the supply of newly produced armaments to third countries (currently, there is only an agreement for the transfer of helicopters produced by Leonardo S.p.A. to Austria, concluded through the General Secretariat of Defense). Such efforts could also present high risks and yield limited results, considering the tumultuous history with Manila in this field.

In conclusion, the visit of the “Morosini” can certainly be a turning point in defense and security relations between Italy and the archipelago, but the path remains challenging and steep, albeit filled with future opportunities. It is clear that the strategic importance and the potential defense market represented by the Philippines are significant. However, Manila cannot yet be considered a completely reliable partner. On the other hand, Rome could offer a lot to the Philippines in terms of knowledge exchange and transfer of military technology, to a country with overall positive historical, economic, and cultural ties. Nonetheless, for such cooperation to be effective, it should be accelerated and encouraged even further. Given the already stable and strong presence of regional and extraregional actors in the archipelago, as well as the Philippines’ predominant preference for military supplies and assistance from its ally, the United States, Italy risks becoming a latecomer in an increasingly sought-after market. Future information regarding the content of the memorandum and possible additional steps in collaboration between the two countries will provide a more complete picture of the trajectory of bilateral relations. After a failed “Big” Italian Sale, a “Fast and Steady” approach might prove more effective.

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