By Renato Cruz De Castro —
While covering the bloody street-to-street fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and militants allied to the Islamic State Group, an Associated Press photographer took pictures of a U.S.-Navy P3 Orion circling the besieged city of Marawi as Philippine Air Force helicopters fired rockets on ground targets. News of the U.S. military presence in Marawi in the southern province of Mindanao spread like wild fire in Manila.
The Philippine and the U.S. militaries have a long history of cooperation in conducting counter-terrorism operations against Muslim militants dating back to 9/11. This photo captured headlines because President Rodrigo Duterte, who became president in June 2016, had taken a hostile position against the Philippines-U.S. alliance when he announced that he wanted to foster closer security and economic relations with China and Russia.
Duterte had declared that U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in Mindanao as advisers and trainers for the AFP must leave the country. He argued that there could be no peace in Mindanao as long as U.S. troops are operating on that island.
A day after the reported sighting of the P-3 Orion over Marawi City, AFP spokesperson General Restituto Padilla confirmed that a U.S. Navy aircraft was providing surveillance for the AFP as Philippine soldiers and marines fought in house-to-house combat with Muslim militants in the city. Padilla admitted, “We (the AFP) don’t have adequate surveillance equipment, so we asked the U.S. military for assistance.”
Downgrading the Philippine-U.S. Alliance
Angered by the Obama administration’s criticism of his a war on drugs and criminality that has claimed thousands of lives since June 2016, Duterte has taken steps to downgrade the Philippines-U.S. alliance. In November 2016, he cancelled joint naval exercises such as the Philippine-U.S. Amphibious Land Exercise (PHILBEX) and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT).
On 11 November, Duterte admitted his dislike of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) when he hinted that he might unilaterally abrogate the agreement that allows U.S. forces access to five Philippine air bases. In January 2017, he warned that he would scrap the EDCA because he had received information that the American forces were building permanent arms depots in violation of the agreement and the Philippine constitution.
Duterte also downgraded the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Joint U.S.-Philippine exercise. Unlike previous Balikatan exercises that involved massive combat drills directed at a hypothetical threat emanating from the South China Sea, Balikatan 2017 was scaled down and was refocused on exercises involving humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and counter-terrorism, with the usual live-fire components purposely removed.
Balikatan 2016 involved 11,000 Philippine and U.S. forces conducting live-fire exercises geared toward territorial defense and maritime security. This year’s joint military drill saw the participation of only 5,400 American and Filipino troops with the United States sending only 2,600 personnel. Observing Balikatan 2017, an analyst notes, “Balikatan has been one of the early victims,” of Duterte’s downgrading of relations with Washington
Is the Philippine-U.S. Alliance Essential?
Led by the Maute group, about 500 militants fighting under the black flag of Islamic State took control of the central business district of Marawi on May 23. Focused on his relentless campaign on illegal drugs, Duterte was caught unprepared for an Islamic militant threat that has been festering in Mindanao and has been reinforced by the arrival of seasoned combatants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya, Yemen, and Saud Arabia.
Trained for jungle warfare and used to operating in small-units, government forces have been unable to dislodge the militants despite deploying ground troops and armor personnel carriers, and bombing the city from the air. Urban fighting in Marawi City exposed the AFP’s limitations. Ten Philippine Army troops were killed by friendly air-force fire while 13 Marines lost their lives in one day of street-to-street fighting with the seasoned militants.
For the AFP, defeating the Islamic State militants in Marawi City as soon as possible is an imperative because a lengthy siege would attract more militants to Mindanao to reinforce their fellow fighters in the city or be deployed in other parts of the island.
At the onset of the uprising, the United States turned over several M4 carbines, M134D Gatling-Style machine guns, M203 grenade launchers, and rubber raiding boats to the Philippine Marines for use in the Marawi fight. A Pentagon statement announced that U.S. Special Forces were providing Philippine forces with security assistance and training in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Spokesman Padilla said that some of the U.S. Special Forces, who are usually based in Zamboanga City, had been moved to help the ground forces in Marawi. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed that “the Americans were staying inside [AFP] camps and coordinating technical communications.”
Implications for Duterte’s Foreign Policy Agenda
Duterte admitted that he had “never approached America” for help, and was unaware of U.S. military assistance in Marawi City until it was reported in the media. He then acknowledged that “because of years of training in the United States, our soldiers are pro-American, that I cannot deny.” Duterte’s candid statements implied that the AFP, which has a long relationship with the U.S. military, had bypassed the president in seeking assistance from the country’s only formal treaty ally. Padilla reasoned that the two countries are allies bound by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that provides the two countries to assist each other in time of aggression by a third party.
The Marawi crisis will have a number of implications on the Philippine-U.S. alliance in particular, and Duterte’s efforts to effect an independent foreign policy in general. First, the militants’ seizure of Marawi showed that the security situation in Mindanao has changed dramatically with several local militant groups pledging their allegiance to Islamic State and seasoned foreign fighters are joining the battle. Tackling the Islamic State threat in Mindanao will stretch the AFP’s personnel, resources, training, and operations. The Philippine military will have to seek military assistance from the United States and even from other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
Second, as Duterte becomes more dependent on the military for political support in general and for countering the Islamic State threat in Mindano in particular, he will have to consider the AFP’s corporate view that the Philippine-U.S. alliance is still necessary in the light of the growing terrorist threat in Mindanao.
Third, China and Russia will likely be more circumspect in deepening their new found friendship with Duterte since the Marawi crisis shows how well entrenched the U.S. military is in the Philippines. Despite Duterte’s efforts to gravitate towards China and Russia at the expense of the Philippine-U.S. alliance, interactions between the Philippine-U.S. militaries have remained resilient and vibrant.
Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a full professor in the International Studies Department of De La Salle University in Manila, and holds the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies.