The Manila visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, including his brief meeting with President Duterte, was significant even with the supposed pivot to China and Russia of the DU30 administration. As they say, context is everything and Tillerson’s visit was in the context of the IS siege of Marawi City. IS is not merely knocking on the doorsteps. Its jihadists have been locked up in fierce battles with the police and the military and are a few hundred kilometers south of Manila. More than 700, according to foreign news accounts, people have died in the fighting and the US, the words of Tillerson, has been providing “guidance and training.”
“Guidance and training.” And coming soon, US air strikes against IS holdouts in Marawi City. NBC News has reported that the Pentagon could authorize air strikes as part of a “collective self-defense” and in defense of a close military ally of the US. Armed drones, under that scenario, would strike pockets of IS presence in Marawi City that have yet to be covered by regular ground troops of the AFP.
Are drone strikes hitting the IS holdouts now? In jaded Manila, which has its focus elsewhere, the most important issues related to national survival are often missed. Or, the important, life-or-death issues such as the fight against IS now in the country, are deliberately ignored.
The unconventional nature of the fight against IS has led to the US decision to support the Marawi fight, said Tillerson, who characteristically downplayed the level of US support to the Philippine troops engaged with IS in Marawi. “Just a couple of Cessnas and UAV drones.”
A “named mission,” which in reality would be an adequately funded operation to support the Philippine troops, has been recommended by the vice chairman of the US Joints Chief of Staff, a recognition of how grave the Marawi City situation is. A “named mission” means stepped-up operations, not “guidance and training.”
We can see the evolution: From guidance and training, to air strikes, to a named mission.
On the national security front, the IS assault on Marawi City had held in abeyance the avowed plan to transition and seek a higher level of cooperation with countries that have been challenging the US militarily and economically. With the grand and ultimate agenda of severing the umbilical cord that ties the Philippines to the US. Right now, that is not happening and the near future will just uphold the status quo. While both China and Russia abhor Islamic fundamentalism, the readiness, and perhaps the full capability, to help in the Marawi situation belong to the US, not China, and not Russia. The turban-clad Afghan warriors had embarrassed the Russian troops, remember?
The 15-year partnership on the counter-terrorism between the US and the Philippines was another factor that delayed the pivot to either Russia or China. The intelligence files and the accumulated data on terror groups operating in the Philippines and the Asean region take years to build and the vetting process is long-drawn and tedious. The national security advisers of DU30 perhaps found it unwise to just archive the shared data and move on into new intelligence partnerships at this point, and with the IS breathing down our collective necks.
Right now, there may be no marching orders from DU30 to transition into other military and national security alliances other than the US, given the Marawi City situation and the Pentagon’s more defined strategies in dealing with the IS and global terror.
There is a time for everything. And in the DU30-Tillerson meeting, the President was fully aware that in dealing with IS, the old ally provides the steadier support.
The disconnect between the pivot rhetoric of Mr. Duterte and the stepped-up collaboration between the US and the Philippines on the counter-terror front validates the US thesis that what is being said is less important than what takes place on the ground. There will be more deals with China under the infrastructure program of DU30, sure. But where it is more important, like in thwarting the establishment of a caliphate in the southern Philippines, the Philippines will always turn to the old alliance. Mr. Putin will have to be content with his navy ships dropping anchor at local ports – at least for now and up to the near future.
Most Filipinos, not yet ready to move beyond the tabloid nature of their issue preferences, have to take note that the status quo prevails. That the supposed pivot in foreign entanglements and security relationships is more words than reality. The Tillerson visit did not stir up discussions on the directions of our national security and foreign relations. The academe invoked the tuition fee discussions issue to stay away from delving deep into the meaning of the Tillerson visit.
Of course, most of Manila and the areas within the media loop were all focused over the hottest issue of the day – a marital spat between a high-profile official and his estranged wife, members of the so-called alta sosyedad. Andres Bautista is chairman of the Commission on Elections and a prominent lawyer, while Tisha Bautista belongs to the so-called “Tatler crowd,” the poised, made up women you often see in glossy magazines.
The reports of a “third eye” and a “third party” – and fat bank accounts – further stoked public interest in the marital spat.
To add sauce to the already electrifying cast of issues involved, politics reared its ugly head and got injected into the original peg of a scorned woman on a full wrath mode … And that spat, which merited a Malacanang audience, imposing on the already overburdened DU30 additional burden, made the important Tillerson visit the insignificant side story.