China is no longer openly ignoring the deliberations of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding Filipino accusations that China is acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea. In part that’s because Britain recently announced that it expected the Court of Arbitration ruling to be binding and would itself enforce any penalties levied against China. Britain is one of a growing number of major nations that are officially saying the same thing and China cannot ignore that. The court will not deliver its final ruling until May or June and China is dismayed to discover that all its economic bribes and military threats are not diminishing the growing international condemnation. The Philippines, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea were quick to openly oppose the Chinese claims. Other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) held back for a while but are now also in open opposition. Meanwhile the Philippines and its closest neighbors are slowly losing control of their offshore waters to increasingly aggressive Chinese claims. If all these claims were enforced the Philippines would lose control of 80 percent of its waters in the West Philippine Sea while Malaysia loses 80 percent of its coastal waters off Sabah and Sarawak. Vietnam loses half its coastal waters while Brunei loses 90 percent. Even Indonesia loses 30 percent of its coastal waters facing the South China Sea. These losses include several known offshore oil and natural gas fields and a number of areas that have not been explored yet plus lucrative fishing grounds and control over vital shipping routes. China is doing all this by ignoring the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty as well as at least two other similar treaties. The widely adopted (including by China) 1994 agreement recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land “national territory” and under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. More importantly the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can decide who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. While this agreement eliminated or reduced many of the existing or potential disputes it did not completely deal with all of them. Thus some nations keep violating the agreements, usually because they feel their claims supersede the EEZ treaty. China is the most frequent offender. For example China claims that American electronic monitoring ships are conducting illegal espionage while in the Chinese EEZ. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors, or anyone venturing into what China considers areas that should be under its control. China is not alone, but because China is pushing the limits of how the 1994 law can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) other nations with similar opportunities to lay claim to crucial chunks of the seascape are ready to emulate China if some of the more aggressive Chinese ploys actually work. This is one reason why China faces strong opposition from nations worldwide.
The U.S. left four military aircraft (four A-10C attack aircraft and two HH-60G helicopters). The A-10Cs will be used for patrols over Filipino waters currently claimed by China. The HH-60Gs are used for search and rescue of aircrew stranded in hostile territory.
The leftist NPA rebels continue to be a problem. At the start of the year it was estimated that 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 Philippines is trying to prevent anyone (the Malaysian and Indonesian governments or the shipping companies) from paying Abu Sayyaf ransom for the 18 sailors they currently hold. The hostages were taken from three tugboats that were attacked between March 24th and April 15th by Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf wanted a million dollar ransom for the ten Indonesian sailors. The army believes the Indonesians are being held on Sulu Island and a major search operation is underway. Abu Sayyaf has previously left alone the shipping that keeps the southeastern islands (like Basilan and Sulu) supplied but the Islamic terrorist are broke and desperate for cash. The Philippines forbids the payment of ransoms to Abu Sayyaf, especially multi-million dollar ones because that kind of money enables the Islamic terrorist group to survive and even expand. The government has ordered a major military effort to rescue the hostages and get the kidnappers. This latest kidnapping campaign is causing a lot of problems in the south because seagoing traffic between the southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia has been halted temporarily. The United States and Britain have both warned their citizens to stay away from the southern Philippines until the kidnapping threat is eliminated. Five other foreigners are being held for ransom. Abu Sayyaf is demanding $8 million or more for the release of each of the Western captives and is threatening to kill the captives if they don’t get their money this month. The government is determined to see that no ransom is paid for any hostages, especially foreign ones who command much larger payments. For Americans and Europeans that tends to be millions per person. This is the cash that keeps groups like Abu Sayyaf going.
April 22, 2016: In the south (Sulu Island) seven marines were wounded during a clash with Abu Sayyaf gunmen.
April 19, 2016: In the south (outside Davao City) a clash with NPA gunmen left a soldier, a local militiaman and one of the leftist rebels dead. The troops, guided by local militiamen, were searching for NPA gunmen who had recently kidnapped seven policemen and local militiamen.
April 18, 2016: In the south (Basilan Island) a nine day battle with Abu Sayyaf is winding down. This began on the 9th when an army patrol ran into a large (about 120 gunmen) Abu Sayyaf force. That led to three days of intense fighting that resulted in 18 soldiers and nearly 40 Islamic terrorists dead. Abu Sayyaf stood and fought, believing they could destroy the patrol and win a rare battlefield victory. That was because the soldiers were fighting in an area where Abu Sayyaf had planted mines and explosive booby-traps that the Islamic terrorists knew the location of but the soldiers did not. This caused most of the army casualties but the troops kept attacking. Despite losing 18 dead and over fifty wounded the army quickly brought in reinforcements (including air strikes and artillery fire) to the remote area that had long been considered under Abu Sayyaf control. This included the secluded mountain village of Tipo-Tipo. The residents fled as the military took control of the area (which included two other villages) and many civilians fear to return until the military leave lest they be punished by Abu Sayyaf for “collaborating.”
While all this fighting was going on ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claimed that Abu Sayyaf (which “joined” ISIL in 2015) had killed over a hundred soldiers in this battle. The army felt compelled to deny this and point out that it would be impossible to hide news of any deaths in the military, not with the way the Filipino media operates. The army also pointed out that it has no evidence that Abu Sayyaf has changed anything since it allegedly joined ISIL in 2015. The heaviest fighting occurred over the first three days. Since then Abu Sayyaf has been trying to break contact but the army, marines and police are still searching the area. All this is about finding the many hostages Abu Sayyaf is holding for ransom.
April 17, 2016: For the first time a Chinese military aircraft (a four engine Y-8) landed on the newly built (on a recently created artificial island) air strip at Fiery Cross Reef. China claimed this was a humanitarian mission to transport a sick civilian to a hospital. Fiery Cross Reef is within Filipino territory as established by international treaty. Since 2014 China has rapidly gone from building platforms to bringing in dredging ships and piling up sand into new islands. Thus Hughes reef, which has had a 380 square meter (4,100 square feet) raised platform since 2004 is now being expanded (via dredging) to a 75,000 square meter (18 acre) island with an airstrip and buildings now under construction. Similar platform building and island creation is under way at other reefs (Johnson South, Gaven Reefs and Fiery Cross Reef) in the Spratlys. Chinese construction efforts accelerated in 2015 and continue.
April 16, 2016: In the south (outside Davao City) over 60 NPA gunmen carried out raids on a police station and an army base. Five policemen, two local defense volunteers and at least 20 weapons (and much ammo) were taken. The security forces have been more active in this area lately and questions are being asked about intelligence and security lapses that could have led to large groups of armed NPA men moving around and getting away with such raids. NPA apparently plans to trade its captives for something from the government. This sudden upsurge in NPA violence is believed the result of internal bickering over whether or not to negotiate a peace deal with the government.
Elsewhere in the south (Zamboanga City) police arrested two wanted Islamic terrorists in the last two days. One was with Abu Sayyaf while the other was the leader of the Rajah Solaiman Movement. This is an al Qaeda affiliate, composed of Christians who converted to Islam. While not a large group, it carried out a ferry bombing in 2004 that killed 116 people. Police arrested the former leader of the group in 2005 and the new leader was arrested in 2009. There has not been much violence from this outfit since but some members are still active and are again without a leader.
April 15, 2016: In the waters between southern Philippines and Malaysia (Sabah) Abu Sayyaf gunmen attacked another Malaysian tugboat and kidnapped four Indonesian crewmen. The rest of the nine man crew, including one who was shot and wounded during the attack, were left behind. This tugboat was going from the southern Philippines to Indonesia and were in international waters when attacked. After this third attack in four weeks Malaysia temporarily banned seaborne traffic between Malaysia and the southern Philippines until a workable security solution can be developed. Indonesia has also restricted commercial shipping in the areas. The other two attacks occurred on April 2nd and March 24th. The first attack was on April 2nd when Abu Sayyaf kidnapped four Malaysian crewmen from a Malaysian tugboat. The rest of the nine man crew were left behind. These kidnappers belonged to a different Abu Sayyaf faction than the gunmen who kidnapped ten Indonesian sailors from a tugboat off the Filipino coast on March 24th. It is unclear which Abu Sayyaf groups was responsible for the latest attack. Senior officials from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will meet in Indonesia on May 3rd to plan joint security measures to deal with the new Abu Sayyaf threat at sea.
April 14, 2016: The U.S. announced that it had already been operating joint patrols with Filipino ships and aircraft into parts of the South China Sea claimed by China and wound continue to do so. The U.S. is also having warships and military aircraft visit the Philippines on a regular basis. In addition there will be more joint training operations with Filipino forces in and around the Philippines. The U.S. believes China has stationed sixteen jet fighters on Woody Island
in the South China Sea. Earlier in the year the U.S. revealed that China had quietly installed a battery of HQ-9 long range antiaircraft missiles on Woody Island. This deployment is apparently an answer to increasing American flights through international air space in the South China Sea that China now claims as Chinese territory. While the presence of the HQ-9 will not stop American military flights, commercial aircraft will probably comply with Chinese demands that they ask for permission before flying through the South China Sea. To emphasize that point China also began operating navy warplanes (J-11s and JH-7s) from the air strip on Woody Island. Throughout 2015 the airstrip and facilities on Woody Island were upgraded to handle warplanes. Now those facilities have become extensive enough to allow the stationing of a squadron of J-11s (an illegal Chinese copy of the Russian Su-27.)
The Philippines and Vietnam began discussions on the details of operating joint naval patrols in waters now claimed by China. The two countries will also schedule regular joint training exercises.
April 12, 2016: The army withdrew its claim that it had recently killed Furuji Indama, the number two man in Aby Sayyaf. A body had not been recovered but the army had reliable informants inside Basilan areas where Abu Sayyaf operates and were able to find out that initial reports that Indama had been killed and his body carried away were wrong and that Indama was in fact badly wounded and still believed in danger of dying. This makes it easier to hunt down Indama and those protecting him because a badly wounded man is more difficult to move.
April 8, 2016: The U.S. has increased military aid to the Philippines to more than $120 million for 2016. This is the highest U.S. aid to the Philippines has been in fifteen years. The U.S. has provided $50 million in 2015 and originally intended to increase that to $79 million in 2016. But the growing Chinese threat has changed that.
April 6, 2016: The two former U.S. Navy C-130T transport aircraft the Philippines purchased in 2014 have arrived. The sale price of $61 million included refurbishment plus two spare engines and other spares and maintenance gear. This gives the Philippines five C-130s, although one of them is undergoing refurbishment and all five are quite elderly.
April 5, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) an Islamic terrorist group (Maute) kidnapped six sawmill workers and made of a video of beheading two of them. The other four were released as troops closed in. Maute is a small local group that has taken heavy losses this year and apparently believes that behaving like ISIL will help with recruiting and fundraising.