China and the Philippines have agreed to settle the latest South China Sea incident peaceably. This one occurred on the 12
when Chinese warships chased Filipino fishing boats away from a sandbar within Filipino territorial waters. Many Filipinos saw this as an act of war but others pointed out that the Philippines could not win a war with China over a sandbar. China cooperated by saying it was a misunderstanding and that China had no intention of building an artificial island out of the sandbar followed by a military base, as it had done elsewhere in the South China Sea. This did not satisfy a lot of Filipinos, or those from other nations dealing with Chinese territorial claims in the area.
This sandbar clash was a clear violation of international law as it occurred within Filipino coastal waters (that extend 22 kilometers from land). But the island (Pagasa) in question, despite being closer to the Philippines than China and occupied by Filipino civilians is now being claimed by China. Pagasa (also called Thitu Island) 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 about its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. 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. China is also concerned with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States).
President Duterte pointed out earlier in 2017 that China threatened war if the Philippines went ahead with plans to drill for oil in offshore areas that international law recognizes as Filipino but that China claims actually belongs to them. Duterte openly criticizes other nations for not confronting China. All the South China Sea nations facing territorial losses because of Chinese claims have backed down. He points out that even the United States is unwilling to go up against China. Meanwhile the Chinese are openly moving more weapons to bases in the South China Sea as well as their main naval base in southern China (Hainan Island). When pressed a few Chinese officials would admit that in recent talks between Duterte and Chinese leaders it was mentioned that war was a possibility if other nations sought to take possession of Chinese territory. In other words (that non-Chinese can understand). Back off or die.
Although Filipino leaders have no illusions about the military balance in the South China Sea they do cooperate with other nations threatened by Chinese territorial claims. Japan has been a particularly useful ally, having the most powerful local fleet, other than the Chinese, in the region and a large, very modern military. Japan, like the United States, have been generous in offering the Philippines used, but still useful, military equipment. A particularly useful recent donation was a stock of 40,000 spare parts Japan put in storage after it began retiring the last of its 150 locally built (under license) UH-1H helicopters in 2012. The Philippines is still a heavy user of the UH-1, which still has six percent of the world market and has been much upgraded and is no longer manufactured. But many firms specialize in refurbishing UH-1s and Huey will be around for a few decades more. Those spares are extremely valuable to the Philippines, which has been using the UH-1 for decades and often arms them. Mostly the Philippines uses UH-1s as transports.
The Philippines has received over 150 UH-1s since 1969 and is frequently seeking more. In early 2014 the Philippines bought another 21 refurbished UH-1s for $1.34 million each. Many of these UH-1s have been lost to accidents and hostile fire or have just worn out. About 45 are still in service. Often as many as half of these are not operational because spare parts are not available. The Filipinos have been pleased with the performance of these aircraft and it’s the spare parts, and the skill of Filipino maintainers that keeps so many of the elderly UH-1s going. The Japanese parts collection thus looms very large for the Philippines as it makes more money available to buy other needed equipment. Even China is offering to provide weapons, for use against internal threats of course.
Drugs, Crime, Corruption And Vigilantes
After the March 6th resumption of the mid-2016 crackdown on illegal drugs there was a lot less violence for about three months but since June the death toll has been increasing. It is believed (no one has definitive numbers) that over 7,000 have died since mid-2016. In the last week over ten a day were being killed. Since March there have been some changes, the main one being a limit on the number of police involved. This was done by screening all police and only allowing those known to be uncorrupt to participate in anti-drug efforts. Initially the revised anti-drug tactics led to about 75 percent fewer arrests per week and 84 percent fewer deaths. The deaths, police or criminal, during police raids were lower (for a while) than they were before the new president took office. Part of that is due to the fact that so many known drug gang members were arrested or killed during the first seven months of the operation.
The new approach is continuing to reduce the distribution and use of illegal drugs. The initial campaign certainly reduced crime and still does but the war on drugs was suspended on January 30th because of an expanding investigation of police corruption, especially of police involved in anti-drug operations. Since the anti-drug campaign began in July 2016 to the end of January 2,512 suspects were killed (according to police). During that time there were 51,882 arrests during 42,798 police investigations. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted arrest or searches but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over 1.1 million people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly all were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers. So far the police and military have suffered fewer than 200 casualties, mostly wounded.
Even after the pause and reforms earlier this year there is growing fear that the anti-drug campaign is still masking a lot of corruption and criminal activity. President Duterte remains very popular but his radical approach to illegal drugs and crime in general has created doubts about the long-term benefits.
Showdown At Marawi
The three months of fighting in Marawi City (capital of Lanao del Sur province in the south) is largely over. The ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated effort to seize control of the city failed. Nearly a thousand Islamic terrorists took on about 3,000 soldiers and despite taking a lot of civilians hostage (for use as human shields) and fighting in a heavily built-up area the Islamic terrorists lost most (nearly 600) of their strength. Few (about a dozen) were taken alive in the city but several hundred fled, many because they were unable to get into the city because security forces quickly took control of access to the city and then located the concentrations of ISIL men and went after them in a systematic fashion that Islamic terrorists were unable to match. The security forces lost about 150 dead and over 900 wounded. Most of the wounds were slight and many of those soldier and police returned to the fight.
The largest ISIL faction in the city was from the Manute Group (a radical MILF faction that opposes the peace treaty) who unexpectedly brought in over 300 of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death. The Manute family is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south and seven Manute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and now ISIL. The battle began on May 23rd when a raid to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon (the head of Abu Sayyaf since 2016) escalated unexpectedly. As the fighting went on there were efforts to end what quickly turned into dead (literally) end for the ISIL fighters. MILF refused to help negotiate a withdrawal of the remaining Islamic terrorists (many of them former MILF members) from the city. Some Islamic clerics visited the city during the battle and urged the Islamic terrorists to stop fighting. That failed. The government demanded that the Islamic terrorists in the city surrender or die.
MILF leaders are perplexed at the tactics employed by the rogue MILF gunmen who are apparently fighting to the death rather than continuing as armed opposition to the MILF peace deal. It’s a good news (gets a lot of rogue gunmen killed), bad news (there are probably more like this in the south) situation. Like much else in the Philippines.
Over 5,000 security personnel (most of them military) were involved in the effort and nearly half of them were mainly involved with keeping access to Marawi City restricted until the fighting was over. The city covers about 88 square kilometers (33 square miles) and has a population of 200,000. A majority of the population is Moslem but Christians are a large minority and hostile to Islamic terrorism and efforts to turn the Philippines into an Islamic religious dictatorship (which is what ISIL is all about). MILF was quick to side with the government in dealing with the Marawi City violence. After all most of the Islamic terrorists there were former MILF members who had joined dissident groups like BIFF, Manute and several smaller ones that all agreed ISIL was the way to go and they went. Fewer than a hundred Abu Sayyaf were involved.
As a result of its continued efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism MILF is again asking the legislature to approve the September 2015 peace deal and autonomy agreement. Countrywide there is still a lot of popular opposition to the MILF autonomy deal and even MILF accepts that they will never have the votes in the legislature to get everything they want. The major problem down there in that a sizable minority of southern Moslems (ten percent or more) want to hold out and keep fighting to establish a separate Moslem state in the south. MILF leaders know this is impossible because a majority of the people in the south are opposed. That includes a majority of the Moslems and the nearly all the non-Moslems down there. Moslems are only eight percent of all Filipinos, and represent an even smaller proportion of the economic activity. MILF wanted control of more of the economy, which meant control of "ancestral Moslem areas" in the south that are now populated by Christians. The Christian majority in the legislature refused to allow domination by Moslems in a larger and more autonomous Moslem south. MILF settled for a smaller autonomous area (Bangsamoro) that had about four million people and a Moslem majority. This issue is still a big deal for many Moslems and could still turn into an armed rebellion against MILF and the collapse of the plan for an autonomous Moslem area in the south.
August 21, 2017: In the south (Basilan province) about fifty Abu Sayyaf gunman attacked a Moslem majority village, killed nine civilians and wounded over 30. Five homes and a meeting hall were burned and the attackers were driven off by the arrival of soldiers and local militia. The troops pursued the Abu Sayyaf gunmen killing three and wounding at least five. The Islamic terrorists dropped weapons and equipment in order move faster and get away.
August 20, 2017: In the south (Basilan province) soldiers rescued a Vietnamese sailor who had been held for nine months by Abu Sayyaf along with two others. A month ago the Islamic terrorists beheaded two of the Vietnamese sailors that had taken off a passing cargo ship last November. It’s unclear why they killed these two hostages, who were being held for ransom. With this operation the number of hostages held (for ransom) by Abu Sayyaf is 18, all but three of them foreigners (mainly from neighboring countries).
Further north (Sultan Kudarat province) soldiers chasing a group of 30 NPA gunmen clashed with the leftist rebels several times. One rebel was killed and two arrested while others were apparently wounded but got away. One soldier was wounded. The fighting caused about 60 civilians to flee their rural homes for a while. NPA refuses to negotiate a peace deal, partly because the leftist organization is divided internally. The government responded by ordering the security forces to concentrate on NPA and shut them down.
Elsewhere in the south (outside Zamboanga city) police seized 300 kg (660 pounds) of illegal ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer used to make explosives), 75 blasting caps (detonators) and some blasting cord. The owner of these items was a Moslem from nearby Basilan province but was apparently using this stuff for bomb making but not the kind Islamic terrorists use. Rather he was selling small quantities to local fishermen who used it for illegal “blast fishing”. This technique involves tossing an explosive (even a hand grenade will do) into the water so the underwater blast would stun nearby fish and make them easier to catch. Although long outlawed “blast fishing” still takes place, especially in the south. This sort of illegal explosives are have long been used for criminal and commercial uses, but have also been the principal tools of Islamic terrorists.
August 19, 2017: In the south (Mindanao island) MILF militiamen, pursuing a group of BIFF gunmen, clashed with them several times over the last two days and killed at least five of the BIFF fighters and wounded a number of others who got away. This is part of a major MILF operation that began in early August to deal with an active group of BIFF gunmen in the area. So far this month about 40 fighters have died in this operation, most belonging to BIFF.
August 18, 2017: In the south (Marawi City, capital of Lanao del Sur province) soldiers believe the three month battle against ISIL gunmen in the city is just about over, with about 30 of the Islamic terrorists still active in the city. The most worrisome part of this is that these holdouts still have some civilians with them as protection from smart bombs and missiles.
August 16, 2017: The war on drugs left a record 32 dead on one day. President praised the high number of deaths but the growing number of local and foreign critics called for some restraint.
August 15, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) security forces encountered, and tried to arrest, a man who turned out to be a member of BIFF. The suspect was armed, pulled a pistol out and was shot dead before he could open fire. The dead man turned out to be Ebrahim Ali, a known and much sought BIFF member because he was the most skilled bomb builder BIFF had and moved around to teach others bomb making skills.
August 13, 2017: In the south, off an island in Sulu province, marines patrolling the coast at night encountered an Abu Sayyaf speedboat and quickly disabled it and killed one of the men on board. The dead man turned out to be Badong Muktadil, the senior Abu Sayyaf leader and largely responsible to the increased use of piracy and kidnapping of foreigners after 2013. The marines were acting on a tip from locals about Abu Sayyaf boat activity in the area.
August 12, 2017: In the Spratly Islands a Chinese naval force (three warships, a large coast guard ship) and ten fishing boats showed up five kilometers from Pagasa Island and chased away Filipino fishermen working near Sandy Cay (three sandbars featuring good fishing).
August 11, 2017: In the south (Jolo Island) four local civilians kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf managed to escape while their captors were distracted. The Islamic terrorists fired on the escaping prisoners and wounded at least one of them. Three of the hostages soon reach safety but the fourth apparently ran in a different direction and is still being sought. The Abu Sayyaf men were angry to begin with because a ransom had been paid for the release of the four men but some (or all) of the ransom money was counterfeit.
August 10, 2017: In the south (Sulu province) marines clashed with a group 30 Abu Sayyaf gunmen and the brief battle left five Islamic terrorists and two marines dead. Information collected from the dead Abu Sayyaf men indicated the group was largely composed of men who had fled the fighting in nearby Marawi City.
August 4, 2017: In the south (Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley provinces) NPA rebels lost one dead and large quantities of weapons (several dozen firearms and lots of ammo and equipment) as troops acted on tips from locals to search for NPA camps. Most of the rebels in those camps escaped and one soldier was wounded trying to catch up with the fleeing gunmen. In these two provinces most people see NPA as a criminal gang more interested in making money (via extortion and theft) than social change.
July 27, 2017: The United States delivered two Cessna 208B aircraft to the Philippines. These single engine civilian aircraft are equipped to carry out ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions. Mounted on the each 208B is an MX-15 stabilized reconnaissance turret. The MX-15 can monitor and record what is below in day or night. It can also spot and identify ships and boats 20 kilometers away. The MX-15 zoom feature enables the operator to see if men on the ground or in a boat are armed with weapons (like AK-47s and RPGs). The MX-15 uses high-definition digital vidcam with an infrared (heat) sensor that provides full-motion video surveillance 24 hours a day. The MX-15 displays what it sees to an on-board operator console and uses communications systems that enable the 208B to share the video with other aircraft, ships or ground forces equipped to handle receiving real-time video. The U.S. already has Special Forces troops equipped with those receivers working with Filipino troops. But until the arrival of the 208Bs this data could only be obtained with American or Australian recon aircraft and UAVs equipped with the sensors and communications the Filipinos now have with their 208Bs. Many other nations with small economies and large security needs have had similar success with the 208B.
July 24, 2017: In the south (Davao Oriental province) NPA rebels killed five soldiers and wounded nine others in two clashes. An unknown number of NPA gunmen were wounded as could be seen by the blood trains army trackers followed to pursue the fleeing leftist rebels.