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The Philippine-American Military Alliance Is In Full Bloom

August 12, 2017

Via Agence France-Presse.

Even if the Duterte administration has turned its back on Washington, DC the quagmire in Marawi accomplished the unthinkable–reviving one of Asia’s oldest military alliances.

Although the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) bore the brunt of the fighting to retake Marawi from local ISIS-linked terrorists, material support from regional partners–Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have all pitched in–and the US have been more than generous. The US in particular donated new weapons for the Philippine Marine Corps, provided vital ISR capabilities such as drones and spy planes, and replenished the Philippine Army’s munitions.

But earlier this week Courtney Kube from NBC News scooped a groundbreaking story–the beginning of US combat operations in Mindanao. According to Kube the Pentagon is readying a campaign of airstrikes against the Maute Group to help the AFP. But a spokesperson from the Pentagon whom Kube quoted did insist this wasn’t the case and Manila has the last say on any US military operations. Another unnamed source said that current ties with the AFP are confined to intelligence sharing.

Members of the Philippine military concurred with the Pentagon’s view and denied any US combat role in Marawi, which has killed 122 Filipino soldiers and several hundred terrorists.

Yet even President Duterte has come around to accepting unconditional US support against Islamist terror. On August 7, a day before the 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting wrapped up, he welcomed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Malacañang Palace and their discussions ticked off a diplomatic grocery list, including the return of historic war trophies (the Balangiga bells) and North Korea’s nuclear program.

The revival of cordial relations with the US shouldn’t be surprising. Until Duterte’s first year in office, Filipino Presidents never considered, much less attempted, a permanent severance of Manila’s ties with Washington, DC. The link goes back generations, having formally begun in 1935 with the creation of the self-administering Philippine Commonwealth followed by total independence for the Philippines on July 4, 1946. The Philippines was a US colony because of the Philippine-American War (1899-1901) and after independence Manila allowed the US military to lease two massive bases, Subic and Clark, from 1946 until 1992.

The Duterte administration’s current fondness for Beijing, which extends to not criticizing its behavior in the South China Sea, is far from a clean break with the past. The compromise over the loss of Philippine territory is meant to avoid a destructive conflict but its effects may not last beyond Duterte’s stay in office.

Meanwhile, as the battle of Marawi drags on, pitting thousands of Filipino soldiers against the remaining Maute terrorists, it’s obvious the US’ presence in the country isn’t disappearing, no matter what vitriol echoes from Manila. The future success of this alliance, as lopsided and flimsy as it may appear, is grounded on some very firm preconditions:

  1. The Department of National Defense (DND) and the Philippine military distrust China and are dependent on US training and assistance.
  2. The US military has maintained a small but active presence in Mindanao since late 2001. This began as part of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” The shadowy program involving special forces in an “advisory” role continues till present. Circumstantial evidence exists these same “advisors” have directed and participated in combat operations.
  3. No Philippine President has tried to nullify the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty nor are recent agreements like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) from 2014 in danger of being junked. Contrary to Duterte’s threats and bluster, the Philippines’ reliance on the Pentagon’s goodwill is unassailable and intact.

By comparison, even when Philippine officials take a soft stance on China’s aggression, there have been few–if any–tangible moves to pivot the armed forces and the rest of the government towards full dependence on Beijing. To wit, a broad alliance between the Philippines and China doesn’t exit yet. Neither do physical joint bases, training regimes, and open logistical support for the AFP. These are all done by the US and aren’t changing for the foreseeable future.

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