On May 23, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte cut his visit to Russia and imposed martial law on the southern island of Mindanao after fighting broke out between security forces and ISIL jihadists. The island’s population is 22 million people. Offensives will also be staged in other southern provinces plagued by extremist groups. The president suggested the possibility of expanding martial law nationwide.
This is the first time in Asia-Pacific that ISIL is engaged in a battle with government forces for control of a relatively significant urban area – the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi.
Duterte had enough time to meet with President Putin but had to cancel a meeting with Prime Minister Medvedev. The Philippine president had discussed the situation with Russian officials. They understood his decision to immediately return home under the circumstances.
Before the event, Duterte had indicated that one of the top priorities of the trip would be to acquire Russian-made precision armaments in face of the growing threat from Islamist militants in the south of the Philippines. According to him, he does not rule out a military alliance. The Philippine president believes that China and Russia are the only two countries he can rely on. Moscow and Manila marked 40 years of diplomatic relations last year.
During the visit, a total of 10 deals were signed, including a defense agreement, deal to share intelligence, and share knowledge on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The defense agreement will pave the way for more exchanges between the Philippines’ Department of National Defense and Russia’s Ministry of Defense. «The forms of cooperation will take the form of official visits, exchange and experiences in consultation, participation of observers in military training exercises, military port calls», said the Philippines’ Ambassador to Russia Carlos Sorreta. Duterte’s request for a soft loan from Russia for the purchase of arms was not part of the defense deal. According to Philippine Foreign Secretary Cayetano the Russian government is open to providing such assistance but the Philippine government will first have to send a «shopping list» of products it is requesting. There is certainly both desire and room for greater cooperation.
Manila and Moscow are starting from a fairly low point. There is naturally a lot of room left for potential growth. It should also be viewed in light of other promising developments within the relationship.
The has been a surge in violence from extremist groups on the islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Basilan, especially since the militant group Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2014. ISIL claimed responsibility for bomb blasts in the Quiapo district of Manila on May 6, a little more than a week after a similar attack occurred on the eve of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippine capital. The ISIL cell in Manila that mounted the attacks is still intact and ready to strike again. Western governments including the United States, the UK and Canada issued travel advisories for citizens planning trips to the Philippines.
While losing territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIL is moving to North Africa and other regions of the world, including Asia-Pacific. The extremist group has made known its ambition to create Southeast Asian provinces of the ISIL caliphate. The threat from militants, who are spread across predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines, should not be underestimated.
For the region today, the question of terrorist attacks is no longer a matter of «if», but «when». Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the most prominent moderate Muslim-majority states. In the past four years, ISIL has not only created a brigade of its fighters for Indonesians and Malaysians, who speak a common language, but also released video messages, shared on social media, targeted at Southeast Asian recruits. The ISIL has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that they form a unit by themselves – the «Katibah Nusantara – Malay Archipelago Combat Unit».
With the world public attention riveted on the terrorist attack in Manchester, the UK, a string of attacks in Asia has highlighted once again that the region is no exception to terrorist activities.
A bomb went off in the Thai capital Bangkok on May 22. In response, Thailand is deploying more soldiers and police in busy places such as harbors, transit stations and hospitals. A terrorist attack took place in Indonesia on May 24. Malaysia is put on alert. The government is working closely with neigbouring countries in information-sharing and is cooperating with Interpol and Aseanapol to combat terrorism. Last June, the ISIL militants committed their first terrorist act in that country. «The threat level has risen because ISIL has shifted focus to build an Islamic state in this region», says Badrul Hisham Ismail, an analyst with Iman Research, a Malaysian group that studies religion and society.
US Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris said that Asia-Pacific region is at risk of attacks by ISIL group fighters returning to their home countries. He pointed out that radicalized fighters from Bangladesh, Indonesia and elsewhere are likely to target their native countries as ISIL loses territory in the Middle East.
According to a report published by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank, South-East Asia faces a growing risk of extremist violence, but law enforcement agencies are unprepared for the new threat. The main danger lies in the strife-torn southern Philippines, where a handful of Islamic extremist groups have sworn allegiance to ISIL. The groups have links to other parts of the region, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, and ISIL has endorsed a Philippines-based militant as «emir» for South-east Asia.
The greatest challenge for the region as a whole is the policing and governance of the triborder waters encompassing the Sulu Sea (Philippines), waters off Sabah (Malaysia), and the Celebes/Sulawesi Sea (Indonesia). This porous and ungoverned region has presented, and will continue to present, a major problem by virtue of the ease of movement for militants and terrorists across borders. It has developed its own political economy over many decades, which involves not just the movement of militants and terrorists, but also human and arms trafficking. Local authorities are often unable to curtail such activities. The challenge posed by ungoverned space in this triborder area will require multi-national cooperation to surmount. None of the regional states can do it alone. That’s where Russian and Chinese navies could help. They have a history of preparing for the mission during joint exercises.
Russia has been characterized by its unique geopolitical presence astride the European and Eurasian continents. It is a major power in Asia-Pacific. Its recent «pivot to Asia» has its own strategic significance. As NATO and the EU hinder the implementation of the idea to create a security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok, «a greater Asia from Shanghai to St. Petersburg» is increasingly viewed as potentially heralding. Any such strategic realignment is too early to predict but the ISIL offensive in the Asia Pacific brings the idea to the fore.
Speaking at a forum organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, last July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov drew attention to the fact that, despite multiple closed and half-closed mechanisms aimed at ensuring security and stability, a structure to unite all Asian Pacific countries without exception has not come into existence.
It’s worth to recall that four years ago Russia launched an initiative supported by China on starting a dialogue in the framework of East Asia Summit on building new security architecture. Back then, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated: «We believe that the new regional architecture must be of an open and equal nature, must be based on principles of indivisibility of security, respect for norms of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes. We are convinced that such an approach to the build-up of the system of interstate relations would help in our practical work to settle different crises».
It’s rather symbolic that the 12th East Asian Summit will take place on November 13, 2017 in the Philippines. The situation in the region dictates the need for launching serious discussions of the Russia-launched initiative. The future evolution of the EAS into a stronger component of the regional security architecture is a matter for all its member-states. The European security is in trouble today because NATO rejected the Russia-proposed security system stretching from «Lisbon to Vladivostok». It may be different in Asia-Pacific. The countries of the region should not repeat the same mistake. They have a chance.