The siege in Marawi began on 23 May, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched a flunked offensive in an attempt to capture Isnilon Hapilon. Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group and IS-declared Emir of Southeast Asia, had been injured since January this year due to an airstrike. The attempted capture was a blunder, after which IS-affiliated militants from the Maute Group quickly gained key strategic positions in the city. With the discovery of stockpiled food and weapons in IS hideouts, evidence suggests that the IS militants were prepared—and some believe the AFP were not.
What has emerged out of the Marawi crisis, however, is the exposure of the deep ties between the Philippines and the United States, particularly with the Philippine military. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had denied any knowledge or official request of US assistance in the Marawi crisis. But the failure of the AFP to achieve its self-imposed deadline to recapture Marawi suggests that US assistance is not only welcomed, but necessary.
Since the election of Duterte, Philippine foreign policy has attempted to gravitate away from the US—its most strategically important ally—in favour of a more ‘independent’ foreign policy, encompassing China and Russia. Followed through with the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, the initial Philippine Foreign Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, remarked that the Philippines must shed its image as the US’ ‘little brown brother’. Following Yasay’s termination as foreign secretary, Alan Cayetano further reinforced this by visiting China during his first foreign trip, signalling the priority of China in the future of Philippine foreign policy.
Duterte has engaged in strategic flirtation with Beijing. He has effectively disregarded the landmark South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal 12 July 2016 ruling, and harnessed the power of the Philippines’ ASEAN Chairmanship to promote his signature policy—the war on drugs.
Duterte’s sentiments towards Beijing also dovetail his advancements with Moscow. During the Russian Navy’s visit to the Philippines and subsequent joint Russo-Philippine naval exercises in April this year, Duterte announced ‘the Russians are with me, so I shall not be afraid’. In the following month, Duterte visited Moscow to sign key agreements on defence and trade, However, the siege in Marawi had unexpectedly called Duterte back to his homeland, subsequently resulting in the declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
In the Marawi crisis, the US has so far provided the AFP with technical assistance, arms and training in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In July, a Philippines Air Force cargo plane returned from the US with a replenished supply of rockets and munitions for the AFP. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also mentioned a delivery of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from the US in September this year. Lorenzana has advocated the US' importance to the Philippines’ operations in Marawi, reflecting closely the AFP’s pro-US attitude. With this in mind, Duterte’s growing reflex to lean towards China and Russia at the potential expense of a fruitful relationship with Washington could be a dangerous game.
In addition, Duterte’s foreign policy aspirations do not seem to reflect the Philippine sentiment. This is especially so when 76% of Filipinos apparently trust the US, but 61% and 58% distrust China and Russia respectively, according to a Pulse Asia survey conducted in December 2016. Moreover, China’s investment boost in the Philippines has attracted scepticism, which is hardly surprising given Chinese investment notoriety and corruption in the Philippines. The time needed to convince the Filipino population that it has more in common with China and Russia than with the US would undoubtedly outlast Duterte’s six-year presidential term.
Though Duterte remains highly popular in the Philippines, the Marawi crisis has so far exposed the deep integration and symbiosis between the Philippines and the US. With the Philippines-US alliance’s historical underpinnings, and the military’s and public’s pro-US sentiment, this current transaction-driven diversification of Philippine foreign policy may not actually enable whatever long-term strategic rationale Duterte has in mind. Duterte’s foreign policy legacy will be determined in part through his ability to uphold the Philippine national interest, especially surrounding precarious policies like in the South China Sea. The reorientation of the Philippines towards China and Russia may render a growing disconnect between foreign policy fantasy and the reality of the Filipino population—a politically dangerous battlefield for Duterte and his government.
Reginald Ramos was the January-June 2017 Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.