January 22, 2016:
Even if the United States bases forces in the Philippines that will not mean the U.S. will go to war over continued Chinese control of Filipino offshore waters. Despite a mutual defense agreement the U.S. did not consider the Chinese seizure of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 an attack on the Philippines that American forces had to resist. More recently the United States refused to answer Filipino queries about whether the U.S. would intervene if China used violence to enforce its offshore claims by only attacking Filipino forces offshore. Filipinos can count and they know that the expansion of Chinese air and naval power since the 1980s makes any planned increase in Filipino military power useless. The Chinese are too numerous and too strong and if they become too aggressive the Philippines will not be able to resist with current and planned forces. That might changes if the Philippines bought affordable weapons that would damage Chinese forces. One way to do this is by using land based anti-ship missiles with enough range and heft to hit Chinese ships. One of the best candidates is from India, which manufactures and offers for export the PJ-10 BrahMos. This three ton missile is 9.4 meter (29 foot) long and 670mm in diameter. It is based on a Russian the Yakhont. Lacking the cash to finish development and begin production of the Yakhont the Russian manufacturer eventually made a deal with India to get it done. India put up most of the $240 million needed to finally complete two decades of development, an effort which produced the long delayed Yakhont and the more capable BrahMos. The PJ-10 entered service in 2006 and is being built in Russia and India, with the Russians assisting India in setting up manufacturing facilities for cruise missile components. India hopes to export up to 2,000, but no one has placed an order yet. Russia and India are encouraged enough to invest in BrahMos 2, which will use a scramjet, instead of a ramjet, in the second stage. This would double the speed and make the missile much more difficult to defend against. The 3.2 ton BrahMos has a range of up to 300 kilometers and a 300 kg (660 pound) warhead. Perhaps the most striking characteristic is its high speed, literally faster (at up to a kilometer per second) than a rifle bullet. The maximum speed of 3,000 kilometers an hour makes it harder to intercept and means it takes five minutes or less to reach its target. The BrahMos is designed to go after high value targets that require great accuracy and a large conventional warhead. The BrahMos can take out land bases or ships. The high price of each missile, about $2.3 million, restricts the number of countries that can afford it. If China lost some warships to a Filipino BrahMos and sought to stop such attacks with air strikes on the Philippines that would trigger the mutual defense treaty with the United States. China has other ways to retaliate, especially economic. China might pressure Russia to prevent India from selling the Brahmos to the Philippines. But at the moment the Philippines doesn’t have too many workable defenses against the Chinese takeover of Filipino offshore waters, reefs and small islands, which makes new ideas, like land based anti-ship missiles a possibilty.
Meanwhile China continues to insist that it owns the South China Sea despite what anyone else in the neighborhood believes or international treaties say. The neighbors (especially Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines) continue to protest and build up their much smaller air and naval forces. Many Filipinos doubt that the United States would stand fast if China pushed hard. There are no signs that China is going to back down when it comes to its many territorial claims on neighbors.
The peace deal with MILF is still stalled in congress. This treaty creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the south. The legislature must approve the new law and that, as expected has proved difficult. MILF also has to get the approval of most Moslems in the south, which should be a lot easier, even if all of them don’t get all they wanted. The government wants to get the Bangsamoro laws approved before the 2016 presidential elections.
The military reported that estimated NPA strength was down about 12 percent from the 4,400 armed personnel it had at the end of 2014. A major reason for the decline more people providing tips (made easier with the growing use of cell phones). This gives the security forces a better idea about where the leftist rebels are and what they are up to. The reduced NPA strength meant that, for the first time, a year went by without any major NPA military operations. NPA no longer has much popular support and increasingly relies on terror to generate fear. Communism has also lost a lot of popular appeal, which can be seen by the sharp decrease in the number of people who will turn out to openly support communist causes (like NPA). These communist rebels are now unwelcome and under constant attack in areas they have operated in for decades. This has encouraged many NPA members to back peace negotiations, something leftist rebels have been doing with increasing frequency since so many communist dictatorships collapsed between 1989 and 1991. Efforts to get peace talks going are stalled by hard core NPA factions that demand considerable government concessions (like the release of 30 jailed NPA leaders) before talks even begin. The government will talk, but not make concessions first.
The military reported that in 2015 at least 133 members of Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf were killed by the security forces. Another 13 Abu Sayyaf men were arrested and apparently over 150 Abu Sayyaf were badly wounded by the military. These actions cost the security forces 18 dead and 80 wounded. Despite that Abu Sayyaf still attracts recruits and several hundred are still active in the Moslem south. Earlier in the month a video appeared on the Internet in which Abu Sayyaf officially pledged its loyalty to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and revealed new, more aggressive, leaders. In late 2015 ISIL announced that it was planning on moving into the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations. At the moment Abu Sayyaf Abu Sayyaf survives mainly via kidnapping for ransom, extortion and other common crimes.
January 21, 2016: China has, as expected, denounced the Filipino announcement of a new air traffic control facility on Pagasa Island in the South China Sea. The million dollar space satellite based system would cover a hole in the Filipino air traffic control network and handle the 200 or more flights a day that normally pass through. Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. China has been increasingly belligerent in its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. China reacted to the flight control facility by issuing an official protest and repeating its threats. Chinese military and civilian ships are showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels try (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard patrol boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter.
January 19, 2016: In the south (Agusan del Sur) troops found and attacked an NPA camp, killing five leftist rebels. The camp was built to accommodate 70 people and the NPA was not expecting the attack because the camp was full of weapons, ammo, explosives and personal equipment.
January 18, 2016: In the south (Basilan) several Abu Sayyaf members surrendered and over the next two days seven Abu Sayyaf men turned themselves in along with four assault rifles, a grenade launcher and a pistol. In the north (Camarines Sur province) two NPA rebels were killed and another captured after a brief clash with troops.
January 15, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) two men claiming to be ISIL members killed two civilians and were in turn killed by local civilians. Police suspect the two dead Islamic terrorists are actually local gangsters trying to use the fearsome reputation of ISIL to make it easier to commit crimes.
January 8, 2016: The government formerly protested recent Chinese tests on the new airstrip built on an artificial island atop Fiery Cross Reef. This reef is within Filipino territory but China disputes that and is using force and things like artificial islands to back up its claims. The tests on the airstrip involved three large aircraft landing and taking off. China ignored the Filipino protest, just as it does Filipino claims.
January 3, 2016: In the south (Basilan) soldiers rescued 26 passengers on a bus that had been seized by Abu Sayyaf. When the soldiers caught up with the bus the Abu Sayyaf men fled into the forest.