Chinese claims on Filipino territory are asserted relatively discreetly but relentlessly and more Filipinos are persuaded to submit rather than fight. At the same time many Filipinos have become more outspoken in their protests and warnings of the damage Chinese domination could inflict. China keeps offering economic deals that seem favorable, but in fact give China more access to Filipino assets or territory in return for not much. China is slowly asserting its possession over areas where it has built bases on seven artificial islands (by dredging up sand). China offers seemingly attractive joint exploration deals to look for oil, gas and other resources in offshore areas where, by international law, Filipinos should be in charge but where China acts like it is already a partner. China offers small gifts (usually of military equipment) and promises of large investments (that often do not appear) and makes loud protests at anything it objects to; like Filipinos displaying banners saying; "Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China." Displaying such banners is legal in the Philippines but not in China. This is the point for Filipinos that Chinese officials don’t quite comprehend.
For nearly a decade, until 2017, the United States refused to pressure China to back off on its claims, even though a UN backed tribunal ruled that China had violated international law and a treaty China itself had signed, but seizing Filipino maritime territory. China ignored that ruling (“set it aside” and continued to build new bases and coerce other nations to recognize these claims. Now the United States is challenging the Chinese claims but so far China is ignoring those challenges (American warships and aircraft passing through waters and air space China insists is now part of China.) Because of the more forceful attitude by the Americans (and British, Australians and others) Filipinos are unsure which is best; resist or submit. Either way China is going to hurt the Philippines. If there is resistance China will seek to impose economic damage. If there is submission the Philippines loses valuable territory forever.
The three largest Moslem Islamic terror organizations in the south (Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group and BIFF) have all pledged allegiance to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) since 2014. 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. The heavy losses these three groups took in 2017 have rendered them unable to carry out many attacks. These groups now make the news with reports of surrenders, raids on their camps or losses to aggressive patrols.
It gets worse for some of the Filipino groups. Abu Sayyaf has taken heavy losses since early 2017 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 early (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. Abu Sayyaf has continued suffering losses like that and more of their members, especially recent recruits, are surrendering.
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. While all these groups are weak and they are not likely to disappear completely. The “ISIL leadership” that unites Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group and BIFF is still operational but spending most of its time avoiding detection.
The Communist Threat
The NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) depends on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. The NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk. 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 well enough to assure long-term survival of the organization. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Those actions begin 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. Meanwhile the NPA has become a major source of criminal (as opposed to Islamic terrorist) activity in the country.
August 6, 2018: In the north (Isabela province) soldiers seized a small NPA camp that was well hidden in a remote area. The troops had to search for about two days to locate the camp after they had received information about it. The camp was home for about ten NPA members, who are now scrambling to find new accommodations. The military has been increasingly successful at finding these camps, in large part to the growing number of NPA members surrendering or getting captured.
August 5, 2018: In the south (Agusan del Sur) an army patrol encountered some armed NPA men and killed two of the leftist rebels in a brief gun battle.
August 3, 2018: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) troops were ambushed by NPA rebels. Three soldier died but the NPA attack was repulsed and the rebels fled, taking some dead and wounded with them.
August 2, 2018: In the south (Sulu) six more Abu Sayyaf members turned themselves in. That makes 150 Abu Sayyaf members who have surrendered so far in 2018. The government treats Abu Sayyaf members with no known criminal record leniently as long as they provide accurate information about their experiences in Abu Sayyaf.
August 1, 2018: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) NPA rebels were believed responsible for a bomb that went off near a coast guard speedboat docked in a port town. There were no injuries.
July 31, 2018: In the south (Basilan) ISIL took credit for a vehicle suicide bombing at an army checkpoint that left 11 dead including six soldiers and four civilians. Suicide bombing are rare in the Philippines and a survivor of this attack noted that the driver of the van with the bomb appeared to have a foreign accent.
July 27, 2018: In the north (Quezon province) troops, acting on a tip, caught up with a group of 25 armed NPA rebels and a 30 minute fire fight one leftist rebel dead while the rest fled, taking some wounded with them.
July 26, 2018: President Duterte approved the long-awaited BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) thus keeping his promise to do so if the Moslem separatist organizations MILF and MNLF cooperated in eliminating ISIL activity in the Moslem south. Earlier this year Congress agreed that it was now willing to pass the controversial BOL this year and after two weeks of frantic activity earlier in July the BOL got congressional approval was ready for the president to sign. It wasn’t just the Moslem willingness to suppress ISIL but also the cooperation 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 settled several disagreements the two major Moslem organizations had to deal with. The two groups had originally disagreed over who would have what powers under the new autonomy deal. MILF has been pressuring Congress to either pass or reject the peace deal. If approved BOL 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 areas in 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. As an alternative the government recently proposed 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 did not generate a lot of support while the BOL did. That idea is on hold. Bangsamoro is supposed to include Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur, as well as portions of Lanao del Norte and Cotabato provinces. These areas must reaffirm their willingness to belong to Bangsamoro voting on it. It will take until to 2022 to get that done. At that point over 30,000 armed members of Moslem militias (mainly MILF and MNLF) can be disarmed or incorporated into government sponsored local defense groups.
July 21, 2018: The Philippines received another gift from China; four 12 meter (38 foot) coastal patrol boats (armed with some 7.62mm machine-guns) and 200 grenade launchers. China provided a week of training for 25 Filipino sailors who will operate the boats.
July 19, 2018: In the south (Sulu) two clashes between troops and Abu Sayyaf left one soldier and five Islamic terrorists dead.
July 11, 2018: In the south (Sulu) two clashes between troops and Abu Sayyaf left one soldier and six Islamic terrorists dead. One encounter was with Special Forces operators who were seeking a specific target. Most encounters are patrols sent to an area where Abu Sayyaf presence is suspected. The patrols have orders to be aggressive and they are.
July 10, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao provinces) three days of renewed fighting with BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) left 12 Islamic terrorists dead. In early July a five week offensive, which extended into Liguasan Marsh region plus North Cotabato against BIFF seemed to end after 45 of the Islamic terrorists were killed, 28 wounded and six captured. Four soldiers died and twenty were 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.