In the Philippines, the southern island of Mindanao has long been plagued by rebellion from communists and Muslim separatists. Now the country is facing another wave of violence, this time in the city of Marawi, in central Mindanao. On May 23, clashes broke out between Philippine government forces and ISIS-linked terror groups called the Maute and Abu Sayyaf.
More than 110 civilians and 128 soldiers have died. Another 350,000 people have been displaced.
In June, the United States sent special forces to Marawi to provide what it called “technical assistance,” which included training in areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Part of this assistance was the use of P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft to monitor areas of Marawi and provide real-time intelligence to the Philippines armed forces.
Behind the conflict, however, a geopolitical game is unfolding between the Philippines, the United States and China as the Philippines' new leadership threatens to shatter old friendships and forge new alliances.
As a former US colony, the Philippines has a long history with the United States, and American military presence in the country is nothing new. Key treaties such as The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 and the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999 outline military support and assistance between the two nations.
The September 11 attacks and the consequent War on Terror also increased American presence in the Philippines as US special forces were deployed to the country to fight Islamist groups in the south.
“The Philippines, particularly Mindanao, was identified as the second front in the global war on terror shortly after 9/11,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and columnist based in Manila. “Between 2002 and 2014, there was a significant amount of American Special Forces actively training, providing intelligence and support to the Filipino military against different kinds of extremist and Jihadist groups, including Abu Sayyaf.”
In 2014, former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Among other things, the agreement grants US troops extended stays and allows them to operate on Philippine bases. As part of the agreement, the US gives the Philippines access to American equipment and trains soldiers as part of their counterterrorism efforts.
However, this steady, decades-long alliance was shaken up by the rise of Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines.
A former mayor, Duterte earned a reputation for being tough on crime, particularly when it came to drugs. It was his firebrand, iron-fist approach that won him the presidency in 2016.
As part of his agenda, Duterte sought to pursue what he called an independent foreign policy that would reduce the Philippines’ reliance on the United States and would open new relations with China. Duterte has made several attempts to diminish American military presence in the country, even calling for US special forces’ withdrawal from Mindanao.
Speaking at a Philippine-China Trade and Investment Forum in Beijing in October 2016, Duterte announced his “separation” from the US. “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military and economic [terms] ... so I will be dependent on you for all time,” he said to Chinese officials.
He soon realized, however, that a severance of US ties would not come easily, largely because the Philippine military and society remain overwhelmingly pro-American. According to Antonio La Viña, a lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, “there’s no support for that [separation] in the government. There’s no support for that in the Department of Foreign Affairs. There’s no support for that in the military, and there’s no support for that among the citizens of the country.”
Part of the reason for this lack of support is China’s land reclamations in disputed areas, like the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, which the Philippines also claims ownership over.
Still, Duterte has managed to score a few small victories. “The Philippines has downgraded certain aspects of our security relationship with the US that were pointing at China like a dagger,” Heydarian said, citing the relocation of naval war games and military exercises from the South China Sea to other parts of the Philippines.
“The core of our cooperation with America still stands, with 95 percent of it intact. But it was the 5 percent pointing at China that more or less was canceled out. If Duterte had his way, it would have been way more than that.”
Now, the conflict in Marawi has presented China with an opportunity to play a bigger role in Philippine military affairs, all with Duterte’s encouragement. China has recently sent $16 million worth of rifles and ammunition, and a donation of almost $300,000 for the city’s rehabilitation.
“You see a very conscious effort by the Chinese government to charm the Philippine military, which they know is very much tied to the United States for historical, institutional, and material reasons,” Heydarian said.
Winning over the Philippine military is key to potentially shaping Philippine defense policies to favor China. But why do these two world powers, the US and China, have such a keen interest in the Philippines?
With the South China Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Philippines is a strategic spot for the United States as it seeks to maintain influence in the Asia Pacific region.
According to Jay Batongbacal, Director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, “the South China Sea has always been one of the important nodes which maintains US sea power, because through it you can basically access the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. So it will always play an important part in the global strategy of the United States.”
China has shown signs that it may hinder US access to the sea if it gains full control of the waters, and “that can affect the US’s ability to project power and to act on situations in the Asia Pacific,” Batongbacal said.
From China’s perspective, the South China Sea is a border “that is most vulnerable to foreign intrusion, so they’re basically trying to cover that gap. The Philippines is right smack in the middle of that,” he added.
Additionally, the US is seen as a stabilizing force in the region, meant to keep China’s imperialist ambitions at bay. Having access to the Philippines allows Washington to not only keep an eye on China, but also to help contain the spread of Islamic terrorism in the region.
For military historian Jose Antonio Custodio, “American concern is really of a security dimension,” particularly when it comes to peace in Mindanao. An abrupt withdrawal of the US from the Philippines could result in the country becoming “a source of instability in the region” as extremist movements could spread to neighboring nations.
Despite Duterte’s rhetoric and China’s attempts to increase military and political support, experts are convinced that the alliance between the United States and Philippines will remain strong.
“What will always resonate in the Philippines, at the back of the minds of Filipinos, is the territorial aggression of China. The main difference is that the US is not seizing our territory. China is,” Custodio said. He also pointed out that there is a large Filipino population living in the United States. In terms of economic ties, the US remains the Philippines’ largest trading partner.
“There are a lot of obstacles down the road to a Philippine-China strategic partnership anywhere close to what the Philippines and US have,” Heydarian said. “The Philippines-US relationship is tried and tested. It’s quite a resilient relationship with quite a significant constituency.”
For Heydarian, remaining in the Philippines is also important for the United States’ credibility. “If the United States loses, in the metaphorical sense, its oldest ally in Asia to China, what kind of message will that send? Many will interpret that as essentially the end of Pax Americana and the beginning of Pax Sinica.”