Filipinos are alarmed at the recent Chinese takeover of a major new port facility Chinese loans had financed in Sri Lanka. As many finance experts warned, Sri Lanka could not meet the payments on the loan and defaulted. Chinese firms took controlling interest of the port. Filipinos fear China has the same scam in mind for them. For example, earlier in 2018 a Chinese credit rating agency gave the Philippines an excellent (AAA) rating. This got different reactions in the Philippines. Some saw it as an accurate assessment of how things were going. The rating agency noted that tax and other reforms were underway and that GDP growth was expected to stay strong (at 6.8 percent) even though the Filipino government was seeking something between seven and eight percent. This upbeat assessment made it possible for China to approve large new loans to the Philippines. That made a lot of Filipinos uneasy. That’s because China is increasingly using its large foreign investments as weapons. Case in point is the tactic of loaning poor countries large amounts of money for huge development projects (like ports, roads and railroads). The loans are on terms that look attractive but eventually must be repaid by governments that find themselves unable to do so. When the debtor nation runs into trouble making payments China offers to reduce the load in return for control (if not majority ownership) of the ports, railroad, airport or whatever. With control of these facilities China can probably run them more efficiently, and profitably. But control means it is easier for China to use the facility for military or espionage purposes. This is called DTD (Debt Trap Diplomacy) and has been a favorite Chinese tactic for over a thousand years by virtue of China having been, until a few centuries ago, the wealthiest empire on the planet. Nations currently vulnerable (they have large Chinese debts) to DTD are Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, Venezuela and Tajikistan. Most nations are aware of the DTD trap but where there is a lot of corruption China can create a DTD situation anyway. Some of these DTD efforts go bad and cost China a lot of money, but on average DTD is a net gain for China as it acquires military, economic and diplomatic advantages without having to fight.
DTD is not the only Chinese tactic Filipinos are wary of. China has been protesting American naval FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) operations near Scarborough Shoal as China now considers this area part of China and since 2012 has posted warships (coastguard or navy) to enforce their claim. Yet China recently told the Philippines that China considers itself exercising joint control over the shoal with the Philippines. The Filipino government (or at least some diplomats) openly agree with that but most Filipinos don’t. 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 prior claim to most of the South China Sea and basically dares the rest of the world to try and stop them. This makes sense to most Chinese because the Chinese have long called China Zhongguo, which is usually translated into English as “middle kingdom”. But a more literal and accurate translation is “everything under the heavens.” Until the 21st century, this mainly meant adjacent land areas. But now China points out that “everything” means the South China Sea as well. Chinese media report these FONOPs as a violation of international law and most now trigger a response by Chinese warships or warplanes. In reality, China rarely opposes the American (or Australian and so on) warships. 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. China rarely mentions “joint control” of Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines but when it does it is an indication that China will allow Filipino fishing boats to continue operating there.
In the south (Liguasan Marsh region plus North Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces) a five-week offensive against BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) has left 45 of the Islamic terrorists dead, 28 wounded and six captured. Four soldiers have died so far and have been twenty wounded. Since June 1st the army patrols have found several BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop where ten assembled bombs were seized. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and have set no end date on the current campaign. The 6th Infantry Division, which is supplying most of the troops, can rotate units in and out of the area for months. The object is to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicate that this is a possibility. Four of the BIFF dead are also being investigated as possibly foreign Islamic terrorists who had come to work for BIFF in return for sanctuary.
Over 10,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes to avoid some of the fighting and there were some civilian casualties. In most cases, the civilian displacement was temporary as the army kept pursuing the BIFF gunmen and civilians could return home after hours or days.
July 3, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops recaptured a town occupied by BIFF gunmen for twelve hours. Four of the Islamic terrorists were killed during the operation. This was part of a larger operation against local BIFF forces and trying to take control of a town was seen as a bold and foolish move. The BIFF men involved apparently came to the same conclusion as troops began to surround the town and try and trap the BIFF men there.
June 27, 2018: In the south (outside Davao City) troops found and attacked a group of 30 NPA gunmen that local villagers had been complaining about. Two rebels were killed and one soldier wounded. The leftist rebels were trying to extort regular payments from the villages. The NPA depends on this money to maintain itself. The government is trying, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, are split on a peace agreement and most are continuing the fight. The NPA, to most Filipinos, has become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their violence. The banditry option is not working out so well and when factions run short of money the faction begins to suffer from desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on where NPA camps or weapons storage sites are considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal more difficult.
June 25, 2018: In central Philippines (Samar Island) an army patrol unexpectedly encountered a smaller six-man police patrol in a thickly wooded area. The police patrol was perceived as a group of armed NPA rebels the army was seeking and the troops opened fire. The police fired back but were all killed and the soldiers suffered no casualties. But when the troops went to inspect the bodies it was clear the dead were police, not NPA rebels wearing similar uniforms. Normally when army and police patrols are operating in the same area both are informed about that and take precautions. An investigation is underway to find out what went wrong.
June 18, 2018: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) soldiers killed five members of the Maute Group. This gang, one the three components (along with BIFF and Abu Sayyaf) of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the Philippines, is trying to recruit and replace heavy losses it took during 2017 when ISIL forces sought to take the city of Marawi. That led to a major ISIL defeat and the loss of most of the senior leadership of all three factions. These three groups did manage to steal a lot of cash from banks in Marawi and Maute is using that to entice new recruits. That is proving difficult considering the large number of Maute Group fighters who went off to Marawi in 2017 and died there.