A fierce battle has been raging in Marawi City since late May when Islamic State-aligned militants began occupying the Philippine municipality. Since then, President Rodrigo Duterte has been grasping for anything to help him win back his city. U.S. military personnel have been on the ground in Marawi since at least mid-June, assisting with intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. Now, unconfirmed reports say that assistance could be expanded to include U.S. drone strikes. Details are scant, and Philippine defense officials have denied the reports — saying there is no need for the expansion and that such a shift in strategy would require presidential approval anyway.
But if direct U.S. airstrikes do materialize in Marawi, it would be a marked escalation of U.S. involvement in the country. More succinctly, the strikes would showcase the limits of the Philippines' relationship with China — which Manila has been fostering — and emphasize the island nation's continued reliance on U.S. security support.
The Turn Toward China
Embracing U.S. drone strikes would be politically risky for Duterte. The president has become notorious both for his tough talk against the United States and for his departure from predecessor Benigno Aquino III's more hardline stance toward China. Though the Philippines has long had a fraught relationship with its more powerful South China Sea neighbor, Duterte's administration has embraced a conciliatory approach to Beijing, playing down a court victory over conflicting South China Sea claims and even feeling out agreements about shared fishing zones and joint energy exploration. (Other maritime claimants, such as Vietnam, have taken much more aggressive postures toward China.)
But in spite of this progress, Manila's reorientation toward China can only take it so far. Though it has the capacity to provide major economic and infrastructure assistance to the Philippines, Beijing cannot and does not want to match Washington's military clout there — at least in the near term. China's security approach has been incremental and focused on non-intervention, for example providing light arms and offering reconstruction aid for Marawi. Though in the long-term China has plans to knit the southern Philippine island group into the fabric of its regional Belt and Road Initiative, it has never harbored the illusion that the Philippines will sever ties with the United States.
Duterte's administration, for its part, is working to balance its external priorities in the region with pressing domestic needs. Currently, the Philippines is somewhat volatile because of deep geographic and ethnic fragmentation, exacerbated by disparities in the development of its various regions. An ethnic-Moro separatist insurgency in the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao further threatens stability. Manila has slowly made progress on peace deals and on plans for the devolution of power, but it also faces militants elsewhere in the form of the communist New People's Army. Ultimately, more sympathetic overtures toward China are pragmatic for the Philippine administration, allowing it to focus more on domestic problems rather than on a contentious South China Sea fight against China it knows it cannot win.
Rough Relations With the U.S.
These domestic issues are what have also encouraged the Philippines to maintain its counterterrorism relationship with the United States, despite the firebrand Duterte's penchant for speaking out against U.S. military activities, particularly in Mindanao. As president, Duterte has had to adopt a pragmatic approach marked by the careful balancing of disapproval and acquiescence. In October 2016, for example, Duterte said that he would reject the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — but the agreement proceeded. Then Manila canceled its 2017 Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise with Washington and adjusted the 2017 Balikatan exercises while at the same time quietly allowed U.S. special operation troops to help with security operations in Mindanao. Finally, when fighting broke out in Marawi, Duterte claimed he was not aware of U.S. assistance and had not requested it. But he also thanked Washington and allowed the aid to continue.
Potential U.S. drone strikes in the Marawi battle have certainly caused concern within the Philippine government. Defense officials have said that such moves would not fall under the mantle of the two countries' mutual defense treaty and would require long legal and political processes as well as presidential approval. And the last time the United States allegedly carried out drone strikes on the island-nation — reportedly against the Abu Sayyaf group and Jemaah Islamiyah in Sulu, Mindanao — the Philippine government was quick to challenge the claims and assert control over the event. Officials explained that, while U.S. personnel guided Philippine forces to identify the target with its drones, Philippine aircraft carried out the strike using precision-guided munitions.
Ultimately, Manila will continue to cooperate with Washington, and even if the U.S. carries out airstrikes, they won't majorly challenge the Philippines' warming relations with China. In fact, enhanced airstrikes by the United States would be no more politically fraught for the Philippines than potential plans to cooperate with China on the drilling of Reed Bank in the South China Sea. Neither event would prevent the other from occurring, enabling the Philippines to maintain the balance it needs to deal with both Washington and Beijing.
Looking forward, the Philippines will face continued terrorism and insurgent threats even after the siege in Marawi ends. The highly fragmented militant landscape in Mindanao means unrest there will likely endure in spite of peace deals, as disaffected fighters form radical spinoff groups. The more Manila turns inward, the less capable it is of pursuing an aggressive regional posture. So even with Washington's increased security overtures in the Philippines, China's strength in the region is relatively certain for now. Of course, securing the Philippine maritime periphery is still very much an imperative for the Duterte administration, but that can't be done until the country gets its internal affairs in order. And even with more U.S. involvement, that will be a long and challenging endeavor.