Battle-scarred Marawi still suffering wounds of war

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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).

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.

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