“I am happy to see you … and you have come at a time when the world is not so good, especially in the Korean peninsula, and of course the ever nagging problem of South China Sea,” said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his unusually cordial meeting with the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a meeting this week in the presidential palace.
The crucial meeting came on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), currently chaired by the Philippines. “We are friends. We are allies…I am your humble friend in Southeast Asia,” the usually tough-talking Filipino leader continued.
Shortly after their meeting, several sources in the US Pentagon suggested that the US aims to expand its military footprint in the southern Philippines, including through possible direct air strikes against Islamic State (IS) local affiliates, namely the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Groups, both active on the southern island of Mindanao.
The common threat of counterterrorism has gradually revived estranged ties, with Duterte thanking his American guest for the US’ assistance in ongoing efforts to take back the city of Marawi from IS-affiliated militants. The US has provided surveillance, training and aircraft to help fight the pro-IS groups that have laid siege to the southern city of Marawi for over three months.
The affable meeting stood in stark contrast to Duterte’s earlier harsh statements toward the Philippines’ long-time treaty ally. Just weeks earlier, during his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte lashed out at America and spent considerable time highlighting its historical crimes against the Filipino people during the colonial era.
Upon closer inspection, however, it was clear that the late July US Congressional hearing on his controversial war on drugs is what irked the firebrand Filipino leader. During the hearing, several American legislators lashed out at the Filipino leader, portraying him as a gross human rights violator and called upon the White House to rescind its invitation to Duterte to visit Washington.
“So what makes [them] think I’ll go to America? I’ve seen America, and it’s lousy,” Duterte said at the time, vowing: “There will never be a time that I will go to America during my term, or even thereafter.”
He has sung a different tune when speaking about the Donald Trump administration, often claiming that the American president sympathizes with his law and order policy, including his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs.
The White House, in turn, is yet to deny the Filipino leader’s claims, having described exchanges between Trump and Duterte over the telephone in April as “very friendly.”
America’s top diplomat, who became the first secretary of state to skip the State Department’s annual human rights briefing, has made clear that values are secondary to strategic interests under the Trump administration.
“Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated: those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values,” Tillerson said in a controversial speech at the State Department months earlier.
Tillerson thus declined to raise human rights issues during his meeting with Duterte. A cabinet member who attended the meeting confirmed rights issues were not raised, despite reports in the run-up to Tillerson’s visit that the drug war would be his the agenda. The two allies instead focused solely on the rising threat posed by IS affiliates.
Tillerson told local reporters he thought Philippine forces were bringing the situation in Marawi “under control.” He added IS is “an enemy that fights in a way that most people have never had to deal with” and that the “real challenge” will come in setting “conditions on the ground to ensure it does not re-emerge.”
Shortly after the meeting, reports suggested that the Pentagon might directly strike Mindanao-based militants with American drones. Photos circulated in traditional and social media have showed US Special Forces flying surveillance drones near Marawi’s battle zone.
Meanwhile, Duterte has come under fire for imprecise airstrikes, launched mostly from attack helicopters, in Marawi that have caused significant collateral damage, including civilian deaths and destruction of property.
The problem with the possibility of more precise US armed drone attacks is that they would not only contradict Duterte’s mantra of an ‘independent’ foreign policy, but also potentially violate the Philippine constitution, which expressly bars any foreign military from engaging in direct combat operations on Philippine soil.
Analysts say it could only be done in two ways: either stealthily, meaning beyond the supervision of domestic institutions and with the implicit acquiescence of the Duterte administration; or based on a new defense treaty, which would expressly allow direct counterterrorism participation by foreign actors in Mindanao, which is now under martial law.
Any new defense agreement would likely require the Senate’s ratification since it would constitute a new treaty, and the subsequent approval of the Philippine Supreme Court – a tall order which would take considerable time in the country’s methodical courts and face huge political opposition, including potential street-level protests.
For now, the Duterte administration seems disinterested in calling for more American firepower. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was emphatic that “We had no discussions [with the US] about that,” and that there is “no need” for direct US combat operations since the Philippine military is fully capable of handling the Marawi situation.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Eduardo Año also made clear that direct US strikes would require a new security agreement, as existing ones only allow American troops to engage in combat operations on Philippine soil in the case of an invasion by a third-party state actor, not non-state militants affiliated with IS.
Regardless of the veracity of the reports citing anonymous Pentagon officials, what is clear is that counterterrorism cooperation is bringing the two allies closer together after teetering on the brink of a diplomatic breakdown. With the AFP still struggling in Marawi, some at the US Pentagon are no doubt pushing for more direct lethal assistance.
While much of Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric has aimed at domestic audiences, building on the maverick persona that won him election, Tillerson’s visit showed the Filipino leader has warmed to the notion that the US is in the Philippines to stay and will be a useful partner in the long slog ahead in uprooting IS in his home island of Mindanao.