The U.S. compiled and released a report on Chinese activities in the South China Sea during 2017. The numerous detailed aerial and satellite photos showed that that China had continued to expand its artificial islands and installed numerous military facilities on six of these islands. China had promised the Philippines it would not expand these islands and that played a role in the Philippines backing off on its resistance to the Chinese territorial claims. But now China is openly discussing its plans to expand its military presence in the South China Sea and proudly displaying progress on state controlled media. This includes plans to install more sensors throughout the South China Sea and put ten surveillance satellites into orbit so that the South China Sea is covered 24/7.
In late 2017 China appeared to have succeeded in buying cooperation from the Philippines. The Filipino government is willing to accept all the legal gifts (aid, investment, loans) China offers in return for the Philippines not resisting Chinese claims in the South China Sea. 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 and sees no point in the Philippines trying to take on China by itself or at least not without a massive amount of support. All the South China Sea nations facing territorial losses because of Chinese claims have backed down to one degree or another. Duterte points out that even the United States is unwilling to go up against China and recent meetings with the new American president made it clear that the main threat to the U.S. from the region right now was North Korea, not 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). Chinese officials admit that they are determined to get their way in the South China Sea but it is also the case that China prefers to buy what it wants rather than start a war over it. That is an ancient Chinese tradition that is currently giving a lot of popular and official support inside China. Effective Filipino resistance to these Chinese plans is not considered a possibility. The Chinese see the Philippines as neutralized and many Filipinos are not happy with that.
The Communists Want To Talk
In addition to the Chinese communists the Philippines still has problems with its internal communist rebels. Because the leftist (communist) NPA rebels continue fighting and repeatedly refuse to comply with ceasefire agreements thethe government has declared the NPA a terrorist organization. As a result of this police were ordered to arrest any NPA members out on bail. This comes after the government officially ended the stalled NPA peace talks on November 23rd. In part that’s because intelligence analysts found some links between NPA factions and some of the Islamic terrorist groups that took heavy losses May-October 2017 Marawi City battle. The NPA recently declared a Christmas/New Years truce (which they have done before) and promptly violated it. Government intel analysts blame this on growing factionalism within the NPA, but the NPA acts like there is no factionalism and the truce violations are the fault of the army and police. The government wants the NPA to prove they can be trusted first, then peace talks can resume.
January 16, 2018: The police resumed their war on drugs. The new version will emphasize more reaching out to addicts and less on tracking down and confronting armed dealers and distributors. On the first day there were five deaths and about a thousand arrests. The government “war on drugs” has left at least 13,000 dead in the 15 months until it was halted in October 2017. It did serious damage to the drug gangs and left a lot of innocent bystanders dead. President Duterte ignores foreign critics in large part because the majority (about 70 percent) of Filipino voters still support the anti-drug effort. Voters are less pleased with the relative lack of progress in reducing corruption. Duterte said the drug problems were connected with a lot of the corruption but it turned out that the corruption was more difficult to reduce than drug use or Islamic terrorist violence.
January 15, 2018: In the north (Quezon province) patrolling soldiers encountered some twenty NPA gunmen and fought for a while until the NPA got away. The soldiers suffered no casualties but the NPA apparently did. There was a blood trail and one NPA assault rifle was left behind.
January 14, 2018: In the south (outside Davao City) NPA rebels attacked a Japanese company facility, burned three trucks and issued a press release calling for better treatment. Off the record NPA wants the Japanese to pay them to stop the attacks but that is illegal what often happens here is the foreign firm looks elsewhere in the region to operate.
January 10, 2018: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) 14 NPA rebels surrendered.
January 8, 2018: In the south (Zamboanga City) police arrested an Abu Sayyaf terrorist from Basilan who had smuggled a bomb into the hotel where he was staying.
Elsewhere in the south MILF and MNLF agreed to cooperate in eliminating any ISIL activity in the Moslem south. This is yet another cooperation effort between the two former rival organizations. For example, in early 2017 MILF agreed to combine its 2014 peace deal with the government with the 1996 peace agreement rival MNLF signed with the government. This settles several disagreements the two major Moslem organizations had to confront. The two groups had originally disagreed over who would have what powers under the new autonomy deal. MILF is waiting for Congress to either pass or reject the peace deal by the end of 2017. This peace deal, if approved by congress, creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. It was not surprising that this new law would be difficult to get through the national legislature. It was always understood that because of the 2016 elections the treaty would have an opportunity to try getting approval from two different Congresses. The main problem is that too many Christians do not trust the Moslems to remain at peace and curb violence against Christians in the south. While Moslems are the majority in some parts of the south (mainly the southwest that will become Bangsamoro) Christians are the majority in the southern islands that radical Moslems insist should be under Moslem control and all Christians expelled. Even in Bangsamoro Christians are a large minority. The government is proposing that the entire country be given the same option by creating a more federal form of government with the country organized into five entities with Bangsamoro being one of them. This means no appearance of special treatment for Moslems. This five region proposal is still a work in progress.
January 6, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops an army patrol encountered about fifty BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and after a four hour battle nine rebels and one soldier were dead. The clash took place at night and the soldiers had artillery and air support.
January 5, 2018: In the south (Bukidnon province) an army patrol encountered ten NPA rebels and after a brief gun battle one rebel was dead and the rest fled into the bush. The troops were seeking to halt NPA “tax collection” from local businesses and had encountered one of the extortion teams.
January 4, 2018: In the south (Basilan province) Abu Sayyaf beheaded a Moslem couple they suspected of working with the police.
January 1, 2018: The army reported that in 2017 they had killed or captured about 600 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members. About half were from Abu Sayyaf and the rest from BIFF. These operations took place in the south (Mindanao) and the legislature extended martial law down there until the end of 2018.
December 25, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) BIFF gunmen attacked an army camp but were repulsed and then pursued by troops and armed helicopters. This resulted in fifteen of the BIFF men killed and another five wounded.
December 19, 2017: In the south (North Cotabato province) soldiers clashed with a group of BIFF gunmen who were planning on attacking local Moslem villagers who resisted BIFF demands (no talking to police, providing shelter and food). After more than a day of chasing the BIFF men five of the Islamic terrorists were killed. Three soldiers and a local defense volunteer were wounded. This BIFF group (led by Esmael Abdulmalik) was one of the three factions BIFF had split up because of the losses they had suffered in the last year. The three factions do not appear to be fighting each other, but they are apparently not cooperating with each other either. BIFF has been on the run since it was formed in 2011 after splitting from MILF. Since early 2016 the government and MILF have cooperated (mainly in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur provinces) on destroying rouge MILF factions like BIFF and the Maute Group. That effort has prevented both groups from growing a lot larger but has not eliminated them.
December 18, 2017: In the south (Basilan province) soldiers clashed with some Abu Sayyaf. One soldier died and two were wounded. The Islamic terrorists had set off a roadside bomb earlier, which had not hurt anyone. The Abu Sayyaf men were on their way out of the area when the troops showed up and managed to escape.