Philippines: Internal Threats Fade, Chinese Aggression Increases


December 23, 2022: The Chinese “swarm and smother” tactics in the South China Sea have proved effective against Filipino efforts to retain access to offshore waters that everyone but China recognizes as belonging to the Philippines. The Chinese tactics have proved invulnerable to intervention by the American military. The United States is the most powerful ally against Chinese South China Sea claims and 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, India 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.

Commercial satellite photos regularly reveal hundreds of Chinese paramilitary naval militia trawlers remaining in the South China Sea areas long recognized as Filipino. Over the last few years Chinese claims were being enforced by a growing number (currently several hundred) Chinese ships that appear to withdraw when challenged, but are only dispersing momentarily before showing up at another Filipino reef. Satellite photos document this Chinese tactics. Several Filipino reefs in the Spratly Islands were used for this, which appears to be a pre-planned maneuver designed to deceive Filipino patrols and international media scrutiny.

The latest escalation has been going on since 2020 with the use of large (often hundreds) numbers of ocean-going fishing boats. This began with Julian Felipe Reef, which is 324 kilometers west of Palawan, one the Filipino main islands. The reef is part of the Spratly Islands. The nearest undisputed Chinese territory is 1,148 kilometers away. China is using bogus and illegal claims on other South China Sea islands or reefs to justify its occupation of Julian Felipe Reef. In this case there is another problem. Julian Felipe Reef was not legally “land” that could be claimed until about five years ago. As happens often in the South China Sea, reefs grow and shrink because of the natural movement of sand. Parts of Julian Felipe Reef had long emerged from the water only during low tide. According to international law, that did not qualify as “land”. There are suspicions that China covertly did some dredging at Julian Felipe Reef to get the permanent sand to show. This is unlikely because commercial satellite coverage of the South China Sea has been nearly constant for over a decade.

The use of commercial satellite coverage, often on a sustained basis along with the growing number of visits by Filipino air force and coast guard patrols plus fishermen operating there, has provided an accurate record of increased Chinese activity. Their photos show Chinese fishing boats and naval “militia” (fishing boats not currently equipped for fishing) showing up at Julian Felipe Reef in November 2020. By mid-March 2021 there were over 200 Chinese naval militia boats inside the reef. Most of them were lashed together in groups of five to twenty boats that formed a pattern preventing legitimate fishing boats from operating inside the reef. Most fishing boats in the South China Sea are trawler type vessels. These boats deploy their nets and then move through an area containing a lot of fish and haul their catch on board and into a refrigerated compartment. Many of the Chinese militia boats are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30.

The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are over 3,000 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies have since been withdrawn but the number of larger freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.

China claimed all those Chinese fishing boats were taking shelter from bad weather. This is often the case with reefs in the South China Sea, but there was no correlation between the presence of Chinese boats inside the reef and the actual weather in the area. The Chinese claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. With so many cellphone videos and high-res images from aircraft and warships available, all China can do is keep lying and do it aggressively and with assurance that no one will do much about it.

China’s naval “militia” has been a major factor in its intimidation operations in the South China Sea. This militia has been around since the 1950s but wasn’t used aggressively until recently. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically.

Since 2015 China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockade of tiny islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so China can take possession. The Chinese fishermen don’t mind the militia work, seeing it as something of a paid vacation with overtones of patriotic service to the state. The militia boats are not true volunteers. When the government “requests” that a Chinese fishing boat work for the militia, the boat owner complies. Sometimes boat owners grumble when they are called up during a prime fishing season, but refusal is not an option and they make the best of it.

China is patient and its “swarm and smother” tactics in the South China Sea seem to be working. China is dredging up more sand to turn reefs into islands large enough for buildings, air strips and docks for the supply ships that most make regular visits to bring fresh water as well as food, fuel and more military equipment. The occupied islands are the equivalent of stationary warships equipped with radars as well as anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons. Filipino allies with large naval forces could impose a blockade on these islands by preventing supply ships from getting through. China believes its adversaries don’t have enough nerve to do that and so far that has proved correct.

Internal Threats

Islamic terrorists and leftist rebels continue to be active, mostly in the southern autonomous Moslem area. The number of active Islamic terrorists and leftist rebels continues to decline and those remaining are largely hardcore veterans.

December 22, 2022: The government ordered the navy and air force to increase surveillance in the Spratly Islands, where commercial satellite photos show that the Chinese are enlarging the land area at Eldad Reef, Whitsun Reef, Lankiam Cay and Sandy Cay. The Philippines has built an airstrip and stationed troops on Pagasa (Thitu) Island, which is seven kilometers from Sandy Cay, while Lankiam Cay is 45 kilometers away. There are also some civilians on Pagasa. China usually denies the dredging activity until the new island is complete and some structures built on it.

December 20, 2022: In the south (Cotabato city) a senior official of the autonomous Bangasamoro government was shot dead by an unidentified gunman. The victim was the head of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples Affairs. It’s unclear if the killing was political or personal. The Bangasamoro autonomous region in the south consists of smaller islands, mainly Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. Moslem Bangasamoro provided more autonomy and responsibility. That meant the Moslems down there were responsible for maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war down there. Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in Mindanao and even more Christian neighbors of those Moslems. Filipino Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 12 million Moslems and over 95 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and more economically successful. The Moslem separatists believed they should run Mindanao even if they were the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the national government were willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines was not. A compromise was finally negotiated and approved by all voters. Diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around but not nearly as active as they were before 2014.

December 18, 2022: In the south (Northern Samar province) NPA rebels were believed responsible for the landmine that wounded six soldiers who were guarding a water supply construction site. NPA also announced that they would not participate in the traditional holiday cease fire. This change was because Jose Sison, one of the founders of the CCP (Communist Party of the Philippines) recently died in the Netherlands, where he had lived in exile since the 1980s. December 26 is the 54th anniversary of the CCP and the armed NPA wants to commemorate that in a suitable fashion. This involves attacks on the security forces rather than concentrating on extorting cash and goods from businesses and families in rural areas.

December 9, 2022: In the south (Cotabato province) clashes between rival militias left six people dead. This took place in Bangasamoro.

December 2, 2022: In the south (Northern Samar province) police revealed that they had identified two NPA men killed last month as senior members of the regional NPA leadership. The two carried no ID and it required weeks of effort to discover who they were.

November 28, 2022: In the south (near Cotabato city) gunmen belonging to one of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) factions still attacked a militia outpost and killed three and wounded two militiamen. There have been few violent encounters with BIFF forces in 2022 and it is rare for BIFF factions to attack anyone, even each other. Since 2021 most of the BIFF losses have been from BIFF gunmen surrendering. BIFF personnel who surrender or turn themselves in with their weapons and tell interrogators what they know can get amnesty. There are less than a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they have remained active for so long. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. Just surviving has become a full-time BIFF activity. The two BIFF factions involved in today’s clash are from different clans and violent feuds between clans has been common in the Moslem south for centuries. The commanders of the two clans are not only from different clans but also have grudges against each other.

November 27, 2022: In the south (Cotabato city) police sought to arrest two Islamic terrorists belonging to the Maute Group, which now prefers to be called DITG (Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group). The two suspects were believed responsible for a recent bombing that killed one civilian and wounded a dozen others. Members of DITG tend to fight to the death if trapped, rather than even consider surrender and that’s what these two did. Remnants of several ISIL factions have been trying to survive in this area since 2017. DITG has few personnel left and there have been a few DITG bombings since 2019, usually against military convoys or camps. In mid-2021 one the last known DITG bomb-builders was killed and the army found evidence that there were more armed DITG members around than previously believed. On the plus side all or most of them had coalesced into one group led by Abu Zacharia, a veteran DITG leader.

November 24, 2022: In the south (Negros Occidental province) tw0 army intelligence specialists were killed while collecting information in a rural area. The unidentified gunmen were probably NPA rebels. NPA is a major source of violence in some rural areas.

November 23, 2022: In the south (North Samar province) six armed NPA rebels were killed when they clashed with soldiers.


Article Archive

Philippines: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close