Washington Pushes for Closer Ties with Manila Amid Islamic State Threat

Felipe Villamor
171026-PH-US_ambassador-620.jpg Sung Kim, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, looks inside a surveillance aircraft provided by the United States to the Philippine Air Force during a turn-over ceremony in Manila, July 27, 2017.

Military and diplomatic relations between Manila and the United States are “back to normal,” the American envoy to the Philippines said Thursday, despite President Rodrigo Duterte lashing out at Washington last year for questioning his administration’s deadly war on illegal drugs.

U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim told a media group that both countries were “committed to strong and enduring” partnership especially in the wake of threats from Islamic State (IS) militants in the region.

“The U.S. military continues to work closely with the Philippine armed forces to enhance capability to fight terrorism,” Kim told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP), adding that Washington was prepared to boost its military assistance if requested.

“Our sense is that extremists do pose a serious threat here in the Philippines and beyond,” Kim said. “This is why it’s so important to continue to work together closely with Philippine military and other countries in the region to make our ability to fight terror elements, extremists as strong as it can be.”

Washington, a longtime Philippine defense ally, had helped the local military defeat IS-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi in a five-month battle that was officially declared over this week.

Duterte had grudgingly accepted U.S. military help in the campaign, allowing American troops to conduct intelligence data gathering. The Philippines also accepted military hardware that boosted the Filipino forces’ capability.

Trump to meet Duterte in November

Kim said the relationship between the two allies was “back to normal” and the military alliance dating back more than 60 years remained “very strong.”

His comments came two days after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited the Philippines and met Duterte, who also warmly greeted visiting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in August, calling himself a “humble friend” of the United States at the time.

Duterte last year voiced anger over what his government called U.S. meddling in domestic affairs, after the Obama administration questioned his overarching war on narcotics that has led to the killings of thousands of mostly poor suspected drug addicts and pushers since Duterte took office in June 2016.

Almost 13,000 people have been killed since the police began the drug war last year, and about 3,000 of those deaths were drug related, with police saying that the suspects had fired first at arresting officers.

Duterte had threatened to kick out the few remaining American troops who traditionally rotate for training missions in the Philippines. But the president softened his stance after Donald Trump came to power as the U.S. president in January and expressed admiration for the Filipino leader’s resolve.

The two leaders are to meet in Manila in November for an annual regional summit, even as Trump was to cut short his trip due to scheduling problems, Kim said.

He said the U.S. government was prepared to assist in the long-term rehabilitation of Marawi, a once beautiful lakeshore community that was reduced to rubble in five months of hostilities. The siege of the southern Philippine city was the first one carried out in East Asia by IS-aligned militants, stoking fears that Islamic State was gaining a foothold in the Southeast Asian region.

Kim said “interoperability” was critical in fighting extremists and terrorists, and noted that Mattis, during his visit here, praised the Philippine effort in Marawi, where the fighting killed more than 1,000 people, including about 920 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians.

Trump, during his brief meeting with Duterte next month, is expected to discuss Marawi and the IS threat as well as other regional issues, including varying territorial claims to the South China Sea and the North Korean nuclear threat, Kim said.

He said his country recognized that the Philippines was grappling with a serious drug problem and that Trump would likely raise the issue with Duterte during his visit.

“We have had concerns about the way in which the anti-drug campaign is being implemented,” Kim said, adding that Washington’s concerns had already been raised with Manila and was understood. He did not elaborate.

In any case, he said, Washington was committed to helping the Philippines, especially as it began the long process of reconstructing and rehabilitating Marawi. Toward that end, he said his government had set aside 750 million pesos (U.S. $15 million) for emergency relief needs, including rehabilitation requirements.

While he said the U.S. military was loathe to pat itself in the back, it provided crucial military intelligence and hardware in Marawi.

“Since 2000, we’re talking about billion and billions of pesos worth of assistance, including equipment grants, training,” Kim said.

This year alone, Washington provided tactical spy planes, hundreds of pistols, rifles and grenade launchers, two Cessna surveillance planes and a radar system, he said.

“We are deeply committed to defending the Philippines,” he said, adding that Washington takes its “treaty obligations seriously.”


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