As the Philippine military battles Islamic State-inspired terrorists in Marawi City in the southern Philippines, the Rodrigo Duterte administration is awaiting China’s response to an official request for new military hardware to combat the well-armed militants.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said his department has submitted a formal request to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to acquire Precision Guided Missiles (PGM), speed boats and drones to counter a rising terror threat in its volatile southern region, exemplified by the Marawi battle that has already claimed more than 100 lives.

Philippine military officials have confirmed the presence of foreign Islamist militants from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia fighting side by side with the local IS-aligned Maute Group. So far the bodies of six Malaysian and Indonesian fighters have been recovered from the battlefield.

During his visit to China before the Marawi siege, Duterte had raised the rising threat of Islamic militant groups in Mindanao and announced to media that he had delivered an urgent message to Beijing to help by providing precision-guided arms that would allow the military to hit terrorist targets in urban areas with minimal collateral damage.

A military helicopter flies past a mosque in Marawi. Photo: Reuters
A Philippine military helicopter flies past a mosque in Marawi. Photo: Reuters

That request came around the same time Duterte made the surprise announcement that he wanted to hold joint exercises with China’s navy in the Sulu Sea, a remote maritime area where the IS-allied Abu Sayyaf Group has ramped up piracy attacks alongside its traditional kidnapping-for-ransom activities.

Duterte’s invitation caught many security analysts off-guard considering Manila’s rising tensions with China over contested territories in the South China Sea, including over a shoal and features Beijing now occupies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The two sides exchanged barbs in late April after Lorenzana visited a nearby feature, known as Thitu Island, to reaffirm Manila’s claim. Earlier this month Duterte claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping said warfare was an option over their contested claims in the South China Sea during a recent private conversation in Beijing.

Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters in Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands at disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017.   REUTERS/Erik De Castro - RTS139QV
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

To be sure, both sides are sending mixed messages. From April 30-May 2, the Philippines received a flotilla of three Chinese naval ships in Duterte’s hometown of Davao. The symbolic port call, where the Philippine leader personally greeted Chinese naval officers, represented the first such visit of Chinese ships to the country in over seven years.

The flotilla included a guided missile destroyer, a guided missile frigate, and a replenishment ship – precisely the types of precision weaponry his defense establishment is seeking from Beijing. In October, Duterte signed a bilateral coast guard agreement, among a dozen other cooperative deals, during a visit to Beijing.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr said that he will soon sit with his counterparts at the defense department to discuss the requirements for possible joint military exercises with China through a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) or new treaty. Esperon made the announcement despite ongoing, though recently downgraded, joint exercises with US via an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers during a visit to a Chinese Naval ship in Davao city, Philippines, May 1, 2017. Picture taken May 1, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTS14RU8
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese naval soldiers during a port call to Davao city, Philippines on May 1, 2017. Photo: China Daily/via Reuters

Esperon was also quoted by the Philippine media saying, “When the President gives a pronouncement, we take that as an order from him.”
He added that future joint Philippine-China exercises in the Sulu Sea would aim to deter kidnapping, terrorism and piracy threats in the remote restive maritime area.

While such exercises would greatly extend China’s naval reach in the region, analysts wonder if Beijing is truly prepared to confront the area’s hardened and now energized terror outfits, namely the Abu Sayyaf Group. They say while China possesses sophisticated military hardware, it’s less-practiced at dealing with unconventional terrorist threats, particularly in foreign waters such as the Sulu Sea.

Philippines-Terror Groups-Abu Sayyaf-Maute Group-Islamic State-May 26-2017

Philippine law, of course, bars foreign militaries from fighting directly against local insurgents, but has long relied on the US for logistical and technical support in fighting terrorists. By staging joint military exercises explicitly geared to combat terrorist threats, the prospects for confrontation will run high if and when Chinese vessels help to patrol the Sulu Sea and other volatile maritime areas.

China may be able to share lessons learned from its experiences with pirates off the coast of Somalia, where it has foiled and prevented attacks on its commercial ships. Pirates active in the Sulu Sea, however, are known to often operate in disguise, variously as government soldiers, other uniformed personnel or common fishermen, to facilitate surprise attacks.

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) anti-terrorist unit apprehend mock pirates who hijacked a vessel during a combined maritime law enforcement exercise at a bay in Manila May 6, 2015. Philippine and Japanese coast guard teams staged an anti-piracy drill on Wednesday, featuring the storming of a cargo vessel after a mock hijack, in a show of maritime cooperation between the two nations amid rising tension in Asian waters. Both nations face a challenge from China's growing assertiveness over territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where it uses coast guard and fishing vessels to press into disputed areas. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
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Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) units conduct an anti-terrorist drill apprehending mock pirates on May 6, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

It is still unclear how much naval support China intends to provide to the Philippines, home to one of the weakest and most poorly armed navies in the region. Some believe China sees the joint exercises as a potential opportunity to convince other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members of the security benefits of bolstering bilateral maritime cooperation.

Abu Sayyaf Group piracy has also imperiled neighboring Malaysia’s shipping lanes, while Vietnamese sailors have recently been taken hostage by the group in the area. If and when China commences patrols of the Sulu Sea, its staying power would be tested by a militant attack on its naval assets or crewmen, which by default will become targets of Islamic State-inspired terror groups active in the area.

Noel Tarrazona is a freelance geopolitics analyst in the Philippines.