One year after Philippine armed forces defeated Islamic State-aligned militants in a months-long siege that devastated the southern city of Marawi, a new contest for the residents’ hearts and minds has broken out between the United States and China.

On October 16, the United States offered a new 1.35 billion pesos (US$25 million) aid package to help Marawi and its people rise from the ashes of war.

The US commitment to Marawi’s recovery raised its total funding assistance to nearly 3.2 billion pesos (US$59 million), more than double the 1.15 billion pesos (US21.4 million) that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang earlier promised to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte shifted his country towards China after he declared separation from the US to pursue an “independent” foreign policy during his first state visit to Beijing months after assuming power in mid-2016.

The US and Philippines are long-time allies, but bilateral relations soured after former US President Barack Obama criticized Duterte’s brutal anti-narcotics war that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of mostly poor drug suspects. Relations cratered to the point that Duterte once referred to Obama as a “son of a whore.”

China, on the other hand, rewarded Duterte’s realignment with a lavish pledge of over US$24 billion in development and investment funds, in line with the Chinese government’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter - RTX2PML9
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Those ties have improved even as the two countries continue to lock horns over contested areas of the South China Sea, a globally important shipping zone where an estimated US$5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

Under US President Donald Trump, Washington has stepped up so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to challenge China’s sweeping territorial claims and growing military footprint in the disputed maritime region.

Now, as the US and China tussle for economic and military dominance across Asia, the jostling for influence over Marawi has become a microcosm of that wider competition.

The US’s Marawi Response Project, a three-year program administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) designed to improve the economic and social conditions of communities directly affected by the Marawi siege, was announced by US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim.

During and after the siege, USAID allotted 1.84 billion pesos (US$34.1 million) for humanitarian and early recovery assistance for the more than 350,000 civilians displaced by fighting that tested the mettle of Filipino troops more experienced in jungle combat than urban warfare.

The five-month war that began on May 23 last year killed some 1,100 individuals, mostly Islamic militants, and reduced the core of Marawi to rubble.

Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law, a rights-curbing order that will remain in effect until the end of the year, in response to the Marawi siege.

Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi from Islamic State-aligned militants on October 17 last year, with his government acknowledging the importance of US surveillance and intelligence given to Filipino counterparts in defeating the militant gunmen.

On the first anniversary of Marawi’s liberation, the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement that US special operations forces continue to assist Philippine armed forces in Marawi in uprooting Islamic militants, including through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.

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US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim during a visit to Marawi. Photo: Facebook

US forces have provided such support and assistance to the Philippines for years, at the request of successive Filipino administrations, it added.

To be sure, China also helped in defeating the Islamic State-aligned militants in Marawi by donating high-powered firearms and ammunition worth 370 million pesos (US$7.1 million).

Soon after troops regained control of the Philippines’ only Islamic city, China quickly moved to donate heavy equipment worth 155 million pesos (US$3 million) for the construction of temporary shelters for displaced residents.

But more than a year after the military victory, Marawi’s ground zero, covering 250 hectares straddling 24 villages with an estimated population of 11,000 families, remains off-limits to displaced residents.

After several delays, Duterte was supposed to lead the groundbreaking rites for the rehabilitation of the city’s so-called ground zero on October 17, a symbolic date to commemorate the first anniversary of the liberation. However, he did not show up and the groundbreaking has since been rescheduled for October 28.

President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines
President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle in Davao City, in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

It is still not yet clear if the government already awarded the general contract for Marawi’s rehabilitation to Power Construction Corporation of China (PowerChina), a state-owned Chinese company.

According to its website, PowerChina is an integrated construction group that provides investment and financing, planning design, engineering construction, equipment manufacturing and operation management for hydraulic and hydropower projects and infrastructure.

Government negotiations with PowerChina started after the original proponent, the Chinese-led Bagong Marawi Consortium, was found to be “financially incapable of completing the project.”

The Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), an inter-government agency tasked to oversee Marawi’s reconstruction, already awarded the contract for debris management, the first phase of rehabilitation, to the local FINMAT International Resources Inc through a negotiated procurement, reported MindaNews, a Mindanao-based online media outlet.

A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017, days after the military declared the fighting against IS-inspired Muslim militants over. Philippine troops of a southern Philippine city where Islamic State supporters waged a brutal five-month battle began leaving Marawi on October 25, as a group of journalists were given the first ever press tour of the devastated city. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Retired military General Eduardo del Rosario, the TFBM’s chair, earlier estimated that three million tons of debris were left behind from heavy aerial bombings and ground artillery strikes on the ground zero area.

The recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction of Marawi was estimated to cost 86.5 billion pesos (US$1.6 billion) and would be finished shortly before the Duterte administration steps down from power in mid-2022.

Jerome Succor Aba, chairperson of Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Bangsamoro), a local political group, has criticized the government for giving false hope to civilians displaced by the siege by delaying several scheduled groundbreaking rites.

“Marawi has been liberated from the clutches of Islamic militants for more than a year already, but nothing has happened so far. Not a single stone, branch or debris has been removed from the main affected area,” he said.

07 May 2018, Philippines, Marawi: Rows of white tents in a temporary shelter site in Marawi City. Thousands of properties were reduced to rubble in ground zero, or the main battle area, in Marawi City in the southern Philippines, by a five-month battle between Islamic State-allied militants and the military that began on May 23, 2017. Photo: Girlie Linao/dpa
Rows of white tents in a temporary shelter site in Marawi City. Photo: AFP Forum/Girlie Linao/dpa

Aba said the government should not prolong the agony of the displaced civilians and allow them to begin reconstructing their destroyed properties.

As of September 2, of the more than 350,000 civilians uprooted by the Marawi siege, 69,452 individuals remained in evacuation centers or stayed with their relatives in other areas, government data showed.

If the government moves ahead with PowerChina, some already say the country risks falling into a “debt trap”, as certain other Pacific nations have incurred after taking out massive infrastructure loans from Beijing they couldn’t repay, Aba noted.

But with 4.35 billion pesos (US$81 million) already committed by the US and China combined, Aba says residents are outraged and frustrated that those competing resources have not yet been put to work in rebuilding their devastated and now strategically significant city.