President Duterte has backed off on his “China is our friend and too powerful to fight” attitude after he found that he was losing vital political and popular support because of perceived over-dependence on Chinese benevolence. Also, a new government in the United States provided more support for resistance to Chinese aggression. So Duterte adapted and took better care of defense agreements with the Americans and other local allies.
The United States believes that China had built sufficient port and aircraft facilities on islands in the South China Sea to quickly station warships and combat aircraft at these new facilities and, in effect, declare that it controlled the South China Sea and dare anyone to oppose that control. Many of the islands are artificial, made by dredging up sand from nearby reefs and shallow waters. Seven reefs belonging to the Philippines have undergone this transformation and commercial satellite photos already show military aircraft and other equipment showing up on these artificial islands. Apparently, China has also installed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of these islands (Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef, all just west of the Philippines) in addition to EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment, including jammers as well are arriving on the new islands. China did not announce installing this military equipment but aerial and satellite photos show the equipment appearing during April, if not earlier. Since then some of these weapons have been moved or concealed and more stuff is coming in. Thanks to commercial photo satellites it is easy to keep track of what China is doing on the artificial islands they created in Filipino waters. Mischief Reef, which an international court agreed belonged to the Philippines, now has a Chinese military base and an airstrip that is regularly used by Chinese military aircraft. In addition, China has installed electronic surveillance and jamming equipment there in addition to air defense and anti-ship missiles. Filipino politicians and most of the Filipino voters they represent are not happy about this and Chinese efforts to appease angry Filipinos with massive investments and other economic perks are not working.
Japan has taken advantage of this and formed a growing alliance to oppose China. Japan has been establishing links with Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries threatened by Chinese aggression. While China sees Japan as a fading economic and military power, Japan still has the second largest economy in the region, as well as more powerful allies than China. The Japanese military is still a formidable force, especially at sea. While memories of Japanese brutality throughout East Asia during World War II still survive the fear of similar treatment from China are turning Japan into a sought-after ally for most nations in the region.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Status
The three largest Moslem Islamic terror organizations in the south (Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group and BIFF) have all pledged allegiance to ISIL in the last few years. That has not worked out to their advantage with the three suffering major losses last year and making the Philippines a place to avoid by other Islamic terrorists in the region looking for a safe sanctuary. The Philippines is no longer safe.
It gets worse for some of the Filipino groups. Abu Sayyaf has taken heavy losses in the last year and the military believes that continuing operations against Abu Sayyaf at the current level (intense, with more troops being assigned to the effort) the Islamic terror group may cease to be a major Islamic terrorist threat by the end of 2018. An example of the Abu Sayyaf weakness was demonstrated in mid-May when Abu Sayyaf released two policewomen they had kidnapped in Sulu three weeks earlier. The government repeated its policy of no ransom (after Abu Sayyaf demanded $100,000) and concentrated troops and police in the area to find the two policewomen and any of the other 15 hostages Abu Sayyaf was known to be holding. Many of the soldiers and police had prior experience searching this area and knew who the usual suspects, and locations, were. The released policewomen confirmed this fear among their captors as well as details of the morale and other details of the Abu Sayyaf men who took and held them. During the search, three soldiers and at least 11 Abu Sayyaf men were killed and Abu Sayyaf operations in the area were disrupted.
The two other ISIL affiliates in the Philippines, Maute Group and BIFF are also fading as casualties, desertion and voluntary surrenders shrink their numbers and make it more difficult to find new recruits.
June 10, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops captured another camp used by BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) gunmen. This facility turned out to have a bomb workshop that was turning out roadside bombs, landmines and other explosive devices. During the operation troops encountered over 60 BIFF men, most of whom promptly fled. About 10,000 local civilians fled temporarily as the army spent several days approaching and attacking the camp. At least 15 BIFF men were killed, ten wounded and two captured. BIFF is attempting to revive ISIL in the south and so far is having a hard time because of the constant (since late 2017) pressure by the security forces. BIFF is opposed to the peace deal other local Moslem ground negotiated to provide Moslem areas with some autonomy. BIFF wants all of the Philippines run by its Moslem minority (eight percent of the population). There are an estimated 300 BIFF members left and the group is recruiting younger and younger teenagers to make up for losses. These younger recruits are harder to train, less reliable and more prone to desert.
Saudi Arabia revealed that in late May it had arrested nine Filipinos (along with two Saudis and a Yemeni) and accused them of “threatening state security.” This apparently refers to support for an Islamic terror group. Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are sometimes found to have been radicalized by locals who are secretly working for banned Islamic terrorist organizations. Non-Moslem Filipinos working in Saudi Arabia are often pressured to convert.
June 8, 2018: In the north (Isabela province) troops clashed with a group of about 20 NPA rebels who locals had reported to the police. The NPA fled when fired on by the troops, losing one of their men to the gunfire and leaving much of their equipment behind in order to get away.
June 7, 2018: The government is trying to verify a video showing Chinese coast guard sailors stealing fish from Filipino fishermen near Scarborough Shoal. China considers this area part of China and since 2012 have posted warships (coastguard or navy) to enforce their claim. In 2017 China built an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, which is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law (and a recent international court decision) is Filipino. The Chinese say they have a prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. Under international pressure, China tolerates Filipino fishermen to continue operating in the area, as Filipinos have for centuries. The fishermen have been complaining about the Chinese sailors helping themselves to some of their catch (usually the choicest items) and now there is video evidence of this. The government has tried to avoid antagonizing China about the disputed claims but most Filipinos are less lenient towards the Chinese aggression and are demanding action. Several days later China responded that it would punish any Chinese who committed such crimes. The Chinese coast guard has a history of criminal behavior, usually taking bribes from smugglers or the kind of theft the Filipino fishermen are complaining of. China is in the midst of another big anti-corruption effort and cracking down on dirty coast guard personnel is a plus for the Chinese government.
June 4, 2018: In the north (Mountain province) a police patrol encountered a larger force of NPA gunmen in a remote village. After a 30-minute gun battle (that left one cop dead and another wounded) the NPA withdrew taking any casualties they had with them.
May 31, 2018: In the south (Mindanao) police arrested the local head of NPA finance. The suspect was also accused of murder. The NPA financial managers are particularly sought out because the NPA has evolved from leftist rebels to criminal gangs surviving largely from money extorted from businesses.
May 30, 2018: In the south (Agusan del Norte) an NPA gunman murdered a local village leader who was also active in running a local defense volunteers group that was making life difficult for the NPA.
May 27, 2018: In the south (Misamis Oriental province) an army patrol encountered a group of 30 NPA rebels and after a brief gun battle the leftist rebels fled, leaving behind three dead and several weapons and much equipment.
May 25, 2018: In the south, MILF has accused the police of murdering nine MILF gunmen after a MILF unit had surrendered to a large police patrol seeking MILF men suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Such outlaw activity is not unknown but in this case, the MILF leadership is accusing the police of abusing their power. The government is investigating the matter vigorously. MILF has been on good behavior for the last two years as the current government tries to get the Moslem autonomy deal approved by Congress.
May 23, 2018: In the north (Quezon province) troops found and seized an NPA camp occupied by about 15 of the leftist gunmen. The NPA men fled as the troops closed, taking little with them. The camp was apparently located because of a clash in the same area on the 14th in which a soldier was killed but two NPA men were captured. Information from those two captives provided enough information to locate the camp and carry out a surprise attack. If the rebels have enough warning that troops are coming they will remove most of their equipment from a camp so the troops will find it empty of NPA personnel and anything else of value.
May 19, 2018: In the south (Jolo) another senior Abu Sayyaf official (Hasmin Abtain) was arrested when one of his former victims recognized him and promptly alerted local police. Abtain was a veteran member of Abu Sayyaf and a close associate of the Abu Sayyaf supreme leader who was killed in 2017.
May 14, 2018: The government protested a Chinese attempt, on May 11th, to interfere with a Filipino effort to deliver supplies to a base it maintains on Second Thomas Reef which both countries claim. Despite the presence of Chinese military aircraft and ships the supplies got through to the detachment of Filipino marines has been stationed there on a World War II era landing ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) since 1999. The Filipino navy deliberately grounded the LST on Second Thomas Reef in 1999 to provide a place for this “observation team”. In 2013 Chinese patrol ships came within nine kilometers of the LST, which China insists is there illegally. The Philippines warned China that it would resist any attempts to use force against the grounded ship and while the Chinese still tries to interfere with supply ships, they have stayed away. In 2015 China protested the Filipino effort to make repairs on the LST. The Philippines protested the Chinese moves today but only after a two week delay because of disagreements within the Filipino government about how to deal with the situation. China is buying a lot of influence in the Philippines but at the same time, most Filipinos fear being “conquered” by an increasingly aggressive China. The Philippines also decided to proceed with upgrades to its other disputed islands in the Spratly Islands.