Days before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cancelled a ceasefire his government had held with communist rebels, his armed forces took delivery of new counterinsurgency equipment from the United States.
The February 1 delivery, comprised of 400 grenade launchers, 85 sniper rifles and three unmanned aerial vehicles, was in line with US policy to support strategic allies, including in the fight against global terrorism, and underscored the still strong military-to-military ties despite recent hiccups in the wider bilateral relationship.
The arms delivery is the latest indication that Duterte aims to put relations back on track under new US President Donald Trump by focusing on traditional areas of common interest, including maritime security and counterterrorism.
This week, Duterte also sought US support in combating piracy in waters off the southern Philippines that some have warned could become the “next Somalia,” if Manila does not assert stronger naval control over its waterways, including around the Sibutu Passage choke point in the country’s southernmost Sulu Archipelago.
Philippine-US ties foundered under outgoing US President Barack Obama on human rights issues, marked by strong American criticism of Duterte’s scorched earth war-on-drugs campaign that has so far reportedly claimed more than 7,000 lives.
Last October, as bilateral tensions mounted in a series of public spats, the US State Department blocked a planned sale of 26,000 assault rifles for the Philippine national police over concerns they may be used in Duterte’s lethal anti-drug campaign.
Duterte has fired back with his own criticism of the role of the US in the Philippines and wider region. In September, the tough-talking leader told US Special Forces to leave the conflict-ridden island of Mindanao, a hotbed for extremist groups and global terror franchises searching for hubs outside the Middle East.
“For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in [Mindanao]. We might as well give it up,” he said. “So those special forces, they have to go. They have to go. In Mindanao, there are so many American [troops] there. They have to go.”
In January, Duterte blamed the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a botched raid on an armed Muslim group’s camp in Mindanao in January 2015 that resulted in the deaths of 44 Filipino police. The counterterrorism operation derailed then incipient peace talks between President Benigno Aquino’s administration and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main insurgent group in the area.
The US Embassy in Manila denied that the CIA was involved in the operation; the raid killed terror suspect Zulkifli Abdhir, who was then on the US’ most wanted terrorists list.
During his long tenure as mayor of Davao City, the commercial heart of Mindanao, Duterte was frequently critical of the US’ military role on his home island. According to reports, he once even intervened to block a joint military exercise annually staged between Philippine and US armed forces near Davao.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the US has maintained a limited, yet robust, military footprint in the conflict-ridden southern island, which has recently given rise to a mushrooming of extremist Muslim groups that have pledged allegiance to global terror franchise Islamic State (ISIS).
In 2014, the US had begun to draw down its counter-terror operations in the area as Aquino’s peace process took hold and identified terrorist leaders were neutralized. With the stubborn threat of the Abu Sayyaf group, including an apparent shift in tactics towards piracy and maritime kidnappings, those terrorism risks are again rising.
In the past year, Philippine authorities have been alarmed by growing links and communications between the IS leadership in Iraq and Syria, on one hand, and extremist groups in the Philippines, particularly the Abu Sayyaf, which is most active in the remote southwestern Jolo and Basilan islands, and other like-minded Islamic extremists active in other parts of Mindanao.
As America and its allies chip away at ISIS’ territories in the Middle East, there is growing concern that the terror group will expand to other regions, including Southeast Asia, similar to the tactical route Al Qaeda took in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are known to have scores of fighters active in Syria, while there have been reports of at least one Filipino killed in action there.
Meanwhile, peace negotiations between Duterte’s government and key insurgent groups have stalled, opening a dangerous new vacuum, which could be exploited by extremists bent on expanding terror activities in the region.
With that rising threat, Duterte is now doubling down on counterterrorism cooperation with the US. To date, the US has served as the leading source of logistical support as well as intelligence for the Philippines armed forces. This month’s counterinsurgency arms delivery was notably made under an expanded Foreign Military Financing aid package, the US’ largest in Southeast Asia.
Duterte has also signaled that the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an arrangement that grants American troops temporary access to bases in Mindanao, will come into force in coming months.
He had earlier threatened to abrogate the deal, brokered under the previous Aquino administration, if the US builds arms depots on Philippine territory. (The deal only allows for the construction of barracks and fuel depots). Despite such threats, US Special Forces’ operations in the area have gone almost uninterrupted under Duterte’s watch.
While Duterte has strongly advocated for a more “independent” foreign policy, one that relies less on the US and engages more with Eastern powers, namely China and Russia, his administration is also under steady public pressure to stand up to China in the South China Sea. Wary of Beijing’s intentions, Duterte has warned that he would take a tougher stance if China makes any unilateral move on areas Manila claims in the contested maritime area.
Philippine defense officials are particularly worried that Beijing will push ahead with building military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, a chain of reefs and rocks which lies around 100 nautical miles away from Philippine shores.
While Duterte has strongly advocated for a more ‘independent’ foreign policy, one that relies less on the US and engages more with Eastern powers, namely China and Russia, his administration is also under steady public pressure to stand up to China in the South China Sea
In sight of the Philippine navy’s limited capabilities, Duterte knows that only America has the capability to prevent China from militarizing the contested shoal. China had restricted access to the area after a showdown with the Philippines’ inferior navy in 2012, but recently allowed Filipino fishermen access to the area in response to Duterte’s conciliatory overtures.
In particular, Duterte has played down the Philippines’ landmark arbitration win at the Hague last July against China, a decision that ruled against Beijing’s expansive nine-dash-map claims to the South China Sea, including over Scarborough Shoal. The ruling also gave new legal ballast to persistent US calls on the need to uphold freedom of navigation in a maritime area where over US$5 trillion worth of trade travels every year.
Yet it has become clearer in recent weeks that Duterte’s public criticism of the US and its military role is likely a populist tactic to extract more strategic concessions from the new Trump administration.
In Duterte’s view, a full restoration of recently downgraded strategic ties should come as a trade-off where Washington is granted expanded access to Philippine military facilities in exchange for a softer stance on human rights.
As Trump stakes out his own version of America’s “pivot” policy towards Asia, the US and Philippines will continue to share core strategic interests, though under new terms of engagement.