President Rodrigo Duterte thought he had persuaded China in late October to allow Filipino fishermen to freely operate around Scarborough Shoal. But while the Chinese warships allowed Filipino to fish near the shoal they were still prevented from Filipino vessels from operating inside the shoal. Since 2014 China has been increasingly aggressive and effective in blocking Filipino access to Scarborough Shoal. In late October most of the Chinese warships moved elsewhere and the few still around left Filipino fishing boats alone, unless any non-Chinese ship tries to move inside the U shaped shoal. For the moment the Filipino fishermen are happy to be back in the area at all. This is still a problem for Filipinos because this shoal is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law it is Filipino. China is trying to persuade (with offers of cash, trade and whatever) the Philippines to cooperate and acknowledge Chinese ownership but no permanent agreements have been achieved. All that is obvious is that China is willing to reciprocate when the Filipino leaders says nice things about China and bad things about the United States. Meanwhile the Philippines is technically an American ally and part of an anti-China coalition of nations threatened by Chinese territorial claims. For China this is progress. China takes the long view.
But meanwhile China is openly boasting of having split the American alliance opposing Chinese claims to the South China Sea. China believes it has obtained the cooperation of Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia. That means ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) which in 2014 showed signs of openly defying China, is no longer a threat to Chinese claims. Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN has since then expanded to include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Most of these nations oppose China's violation of many members EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) in the South China Sea. China long had a staunch (and paid for) ally in ASEAN (Cambodia) who blocked all attempts to unify and oppose China. Now China has more allies in ASEAN and one less international critic to worry about.
War on Drugs
Police have, since the war on drugs began on June 30th, filled the jails to the breaking point and caused some 2,300 deaths in the process. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. So far the police have suffered fewer than 80 casualties, mostly wounded. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused nearly a million people to turn themselves in. Nearly all these were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers.
To most Filipinos the operation appears to be a success because there is far less of the usual drug related activity or drug related crimes. The anti-drug campaign has caused chaos among most of the gangs involved in producing and distributing illegal drugs. Far fewer police are involved in criminal activity as well. For example mandatory drug tests for police has led to 175 of 180,000 national police being caught and charged so far. Some of these police are innocent because of false positives. This is largely because the most common drug is “shabu” (slang for illegal methamphetamine pills, often smuggled in from Burma via Thailand). The meth pills are a regional problem and the meth pills show up throughout East and Southeast Asia, including China and North Korea. The drug crackdown has helped MILF to crack down on the growing number of its members who are engaged in importing and selling shabu. MILF members are going to run the government of the new autonomous state in the south and corruption (like cooperating with the shabu trade) is expected to be a major problem.
Opinion polls show over 80 percent of Filipinos approve of president Duterte and his war on drugs. These are very high rating for a Filipino president. But there are uncertainties. For one thing the Filipino justice system, even in normal times, is remarkably inefficient. Many cases take years to reach a conclusion and many suspects cannot post bail and remain in jail while waiting. Wealthy suspects can still afford to delay prosecution or bribe their way out of a conviction. To that end the president is proposing suspending constitutional guarantees of due process. A lot of law-abiding Filipinos oppose this but without judicial reforms (which take a long time) or more prisons (which require money the government has not got) the war on drugs is going to stall because of the problems with prosecuting those arrested. Another side effect of the war on drugs is that criminal gangs, faced with reduced supplies of drugs are turning to other crimes, like kidnapping. That has not replaced the lost drug revenue and does not impact most Filipinos (only those who can pay a ransom) but the gangs will keep seeking new sources of revenue.
China is seen as helpful in all this as China does not criticize the police state methods like the United States and other nations (especially in the West) do. Nevertheless recent opinion polls show that most Filipinos still trust the U.S. more than China and that is something else the new Filipino president has to deal with. Neighbor Indonesia is watching the Filipino anti-drug campaign carefully because a growing number of Indonesians are calling for a similar effort.
November 11, 2016: In the south, off Basilan Island, ten Abu Sayyaf gunmen boarded a Vietnamese cargo ship, wounded one of the crew and kidnapped six other crewmen, including the captain.
November 10, 2016: The Philippines has agreed to allow Malaysian and Indonesian ships and aircraft to undertake “hot pursuit” of Abu Sayyaf into Filipino waters. The Filipino government had been asked to allow Indonesian anti-terrorism commandos to come to areas where Abu Sayyaf operates and help find hostages. These Indonesian operatives have a reputation for effectiveness, which is why so many Indonesian Islamic terrorists have fled to the Philippines. That request may still be under discussion. The officials from the three countries will meet on November 22nd to work out the details (how to communicate with each other during a hot pursuit incident.)
November 9, 2016: President Duterte was persuaded by his own defense officials to continue joint training with American forces. It was pointed out that if the Americans were expelled no one else who be able to block continued Chinese aggression or threats from any other neighbor. Nevertheless Duterte insists that he will enact a ban on all foreign troops in the Philippines by the end of his term in 2022.
November 8, 2016: The government will intervene to mediate a dispute between the two major Moslem separatist groups (MILF and MNLF) in the south. These two groups must cooperate to implement the peace treaty to end the Moslem uprising in the south. MNLF is a Moslem separatist group that made peace with the government in 1996 and still functions as a pro-government (or at least neutral) militia in the south. Since 2015 this has led to more friction with the larger MILF, whose members are angry at Abu Sayyaf kidnapping fellow Moslems (Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians) and killing fellow Moslems in Sulu province (who are often MNLF members). MNLF leaders also realize that right now cooperation with the government against Abu Sayyaf will help get the Moro peace deal approved by congress. This would create Bangsamoro, an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. MILF negotiated this deal with the assent of the MNLF. In contrast Abu Sayyaf wants all of the Philippines turned into a Moslem religious dictatorship. MILF and MNLF see Bangsamoro as a more practical goal but there is a lot of mistrust between MILF and MNLF leaders. The government hopes to get the situation down south sorted out by mid-2017 so that Congress will be willing to approve the treaty. Duterte believes the newly elected American president will be less critical of how the Philippines deals with drug problems and Chinese aggression.
November 7, 2016: Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for attacking a German 10 meter (31 foot) seagoing sailboat on the 6th, killing the woman on board and kidnapping her husband. The boat was found drifting off Sulu islands today. Abu Sayyaf is demanding a ransom. The couple had been taken by Somali pirates in 2008 and ransomed for several million dollars. The two were defiant about their right to sail wherever they wanted, including the waters off the southern Philippines where there have been numerous attacks on ships and kidnappings of crews.
November 6, 2016: The president ordered the cancellation of an order for 26,000 American M-16 rifles if the U.S. government decides to hold up the shipment of the weapons because of accusations they would be used by the National Police to murder people.
November 5, 2016: Rolando Espinosa, the mayor of a southern town was shot dead in jail in what prison officials described as an effort to search for suspected weapons and drugs that had been smuggled into jail. Espinosa and his son are accused of running a major drug gang and the elder Espinosa is said to have disagreed with his son and cooperating with prosecutors. Thus it would be unlikely that he had a gun smuggled into prison. Then again maybe not because the dead Espinosa’s testimony could threaten more than just his own son and a gun in his cell would be a measure of protection. For the moment the accepted story is that the elder Espinosa died during a prison gun battle (not unusual in the Philippines) and was not assassinated by the police. Meanwhile there is the son, who got out of the country. But on October 16th Abu Dhabi police arrested Rolan Eslabon Espinosa, the second most wanted criminal in the Philippines and boss of the largest drug operation in the south. Espinosa, like many other drug gang leaders, quietly left the country for the Persian Gulf shortly after Duterte took power. Espinosa was a major drug gang leader in the southern Philippines and he knew how Duterte had cracked down on drug gangs in Davao City (in the southeast). Espinosa had left the Philippines on June 21st and using a fake (but authentic) passport he showed up in Dubai (the main city of Abu Dhabi) on August 1st using another name. Someone (possibly one of the many Filipinos working in the Persian Gulf) recognized him from a picture of him on the local news and informed the police who made the arrest today after having contacted Filipino police to confirm the ID. The younger Espinosa is resisting extradition, especially since his father was killed and is now offering to testify in return of immunity and entrance into the witness protection program. But the son wants guarantees that he and his family will make it back to the Philippines alive and be protected while waiting to testify. This is not a unique situation as the government has accused 160 politicians of being involved in the drug business and at least one other politician has been murdered, apparently by drug gangs fearful that he would talk.
November 1, 2016: In the south (Sulu and Basilan) the military reported that their three month offensive against Abu Sayyaf has so far killed 112 of the Islamic terrorists and captured 98. Many of those captured actually surrendered voluntarily. The military suffered 28 dead and 36 wounded. The military also believes that Abu Sayyaf received over $7 million in ransom payments during the first six months of 2016 and that is one reason why the group continues to attract new recruits. It is estimated that Abu Sayyaf still has between 400 or more armed members and managed to carry out 32 terror attacks (mostly bombings) during the first six months of the year. The National Police confirm that Abu Sayyaf members have been detected all over the country, usually as they are passing through.
October 25, 2016: The Navy ordered two frigates from a South Korean shipyard for $169 million each. These two ships will be smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate.
October 21, 2016: In the southeast (off the coast of Tawi-Tawi province) Abu Sayyaf gunmen boarded a South Korean freighter and kidnapped two members of the crew (the captain and one of the crew who was Filipino).
In the south (Maguindanao province) soldiers sought to arrest Mayogantong Bansil, a major drug gang leader, but during the resulting gun battle Bansil got away. Two of his bodyguards were killed and one was captured. Three soldiers were wounded. The army then called on local MILF leaders to help out in tracking down Bansil. MILF is officially cooperating in the new nation-wide government offensive against drug gangs
The U.S. Navy conducted another freedom of navigation exercise off the Paracels and other islands in the South China Sea in order to assure freedom of navigation in international waters. China protested but did not oppose the American destroyers. These exercises are meant to affirm that many of the Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea are invalid and that the right to free passage through China’s EEZ is assured. By international law (a 1994 treaty), the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control 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. China asserts that it can control who enters its EEZ and harasses American warships and aircraft that do so. China has angered its neighbors by claiming all the islands (especially tiny uninhabited ones) in the South China Sea. This is a 3.5 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) area south of China and Taiwan, west of the Philippines and north of Indonesia. China claims the entire area, as if it were one big EEZ. This has aroused the ire of the neighbors, and caused them to unite against China. The U.S. has also said it is not taking sides in the claims over disputed islands and rocks but that freedom of navigation is a primary mission of the American fleet and such missions are carried out all over the world every year. The U.S. is not giving China any exceptional treatment but is simply pointing out that China is attempting to violate international law. China is protesting that as well.