Philippines: Conflicts On Land And At Sea

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September 21, 2022: In the last two months the newly elected Filipino president made 52 diplomatic protests for Chinese violations against illegal Chinese operations in the South China Sea. His predecessor also made similar protests but at the rate of ten or eleven every two months. Chinese intrusions have increased over the last six years. The first Filipino offshore oil discovery began producing off Palawan Island in 1976. There were indications that a lot more oil and natural gas was present off the coasts of various islands, including some in the South China Sea but within the Filipino EEC (Exclusive Economic Zone). By 2000 China was on its way to becoming the largest importer of oil in the world and that led to more Chinese threats against any oil field development in the South China Sea that was not controlled by China. This violates international law but China simply ignores that and threatens to use force against any other offshore oil production development efforts.

Despite the Chinese threats, the South China Sea situation is becoming more difficult for China because the Philippines came up with several ways to reduce that threat. One effort was aimed at reducing corrupt Chinese influence in the Philippines. That is the main reason why the new Filipino government canceled three Chinese-financed railroad construction projects worth nine billion dollars. This was part of a $24 billion Chinese proposal for projects that improved Filipino ports and transportation networks. Cancelation of these projects has been under consideration for over a year because of vague loan terms and Chinese failure to perform. The Chinese are believed to be using the loan program as a weapon to coerce the Philippines into making concessions in the South China Sea, especially when it comes to offshore oil and natural gas.

A national opinion survey conducted at the end of June found that Filipinos trusted the United States, Australia and Japan the most while trusting China and Russia the least. Respondents were asked to rank a list of ten nations in terms of trustworthiness. The results of the survey were, in order of trust; the United States, Australia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Britain, Indonesia, India, Russia and China. There was some support for China but the U.S. had more than three times as much support. This meant the Americans had the support of most Filipinos while China had only a small minority. Only Russia and China had the majority of Filipinos mistrusting them. Trust of Russia used to be positive but the February invasion of Ukraine and Chinese support for it made Russia nearly as untrustworthy as China to most Filipinos. Until China expanded its “lost territory” claims to the South China Sea nearly two decades ago. China was seen as a potential ally of, and investor in, the Philippines. Despite numerous Filipino diplomatic efforts, China refused to compromise on its claims. At this point China is seen as the greatest threat to the Philippines, especially since the Chinese appear to have additional claims on Filipino territory and independence as a nation.

The United States is the most powerful ally against Chinese South China Sea claims. The U.S. Navy continues to conduct FONOP (freedom of navigation operations) by sending warships (usually a destroyer) near South China Sea islands China claims as Chinese territory. This includes the Spratly Islands, which are an important part of the South China Sea areas that China considers its territorial waters. The Philippines has military detachments on nine of the disputed islands or reefs. These are part of an effort to oppose the illegal Chinese claims. The U.S. carries out most of the FONOPs in the South China Sea while also declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as completely unlawful, as is the Chinese campaign of bullying to control these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets, at best, 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOP with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression. European nations whose merchant ships travel through the South China Sea also carry out FONOPs.

September 15, 2022: In the south (Basilan province) three soldiers were killed when six Abu Sayyaf gunmen ambushed an army vehicle but fled after about ten minutes of shooting.

September 13, 2022: In the south (Davao Oriental province) troops clashed with NPA gunmen over the last three days, leaving five of them dead and several other wounded. Large quantities of weapons and ammo were captured.

September 11, 2022: In the south (Maguindanao province) a grenade was thrown in a bar, wounding five people. There had been a heated argument between two groups over the upcoming vote to decide if Maguindanao would be divided into two provinces. The voting took place and the vast majority approved the two-province option.

August 22, 2022: In the south (Samar province) a large motorboat exploded off the coast before dawn as it was fired on by soldiers. The boat contained ten senior members of the NPA (New People’s Army) who were fleeing an eight month long military operation in another part of Samar where the NPA had established a base in the mountains. Local civilians have become increasingly and openly hostile towards the NPA on Samar Island. This began three years ago when the communist rebels adapted to the hostility of the rural populations by attacking them regularly. These marauding leftist rebels were seen as political bandits rather than potential liberators. The security forces had to deal with these new rebel tactics, which are particularly effective in rural areas where roads are few and the rebels can set up their ambush on routes certain to have army or police vehicles pass by. NPA use of roadside bombs and gunfire became a favorite tactic that caused the leftist more problems than it solved. The current military operation against NPA camps in the mountains led to the senior NPA leaders based in one of those camps to flee to the coast and use a motorboat to move to a less dangerous part of Samar Island. The military detected this effort when local civilians reported the NPA motorboat being loaded at night. This brought the army to the area after the boat left. The direction it traveled was reported and the soldiers pursued in their own motorboats and caught up with the NPA boat before it could reach its destination.

 

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