Philippines: China Closes In



May 19, 2023: The Philippines major organized threat is now external, in the form of Chinese claims on many small Filipino islands and large areas of the South China Sea that have long been under Filipino control and recognized as Filipino by treaty and reaffirmed by a 2016 international court ruling against recent Chinese claims. The Philippines is not alone because China claims to control most of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is one of those ocean areas close to land that are called a “sea” because it is a distinct area. The South China Sea is actually part of the Western Pacific Ocean. The northern boundary is South China while the western boundary is the Indochinese Peninsula. The eastern boundary consists of Taiwan and northwestern Philippines (the islands of Luzon, Mindoro and Palawan). The southern boundary is Borneo, eastern Sumatra and the Bangka Belitung Islands. The Gulf of Thailand and the Gulf of Tonkin are also part of South China Sea.

This South China Sea covers an area of around 3,500,000 square kilometers (1,400,000 square miles). That’s about a third the size of China or the United States. The South China Sea has distinct outlets to the rest of the world. The principles ones are Taiwan Strait to the East China sea, the Luzon Strait to the Philippine Sea and the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. In the last half- century, the South China Sea has become a throughfare for most of the international commerce between the booming East Asian economies of China, South Korea and Japan and the Middle East and Europe via the Suez Canal. This is why China wants to control the South China Sea.

Filipino claims are not the only ones China has to deal with before they can actually claim and exercise control over the South China Sea. The Filipino opposition was considered the easiest to brush aside but that plan failed when the Philippines fell back on its mutual defense treaty with the United States and the Americans agreed to cooperate, even though Chinese forces were not actually attacking any of the main Filipino islands and population centers. The Philippines finds itself part of a growing anti-China coalition dedicated to preventing China from exercising control over the South China Sea. This coalition now includes South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam as well as the United States, Australia and several NATO nations with navies and lots of trade passing through the South China Sea. To China this coalition is seen as an obstacle, not a defeat.

Domestic Disturbances

During the last year the decline in rebel (communist and Islamic) continued. These groups no longer make the headlines because there are only about a hundred of these rebels still active and their main activity is avoiding detection by the army and police. During the last two years t he NPA (New People’s Army) rapidly fell apart after several senior leaders killed or captured some of them with over fifty years’ NPA experience. Many were found because of tips from local civilians. Most of the political violence in the Philippines since World War II has come from communists, who were present but not very active before World War II. The communists became a major part of the armed opposition fighting the brutal 1942-45 Japanese occupation. After independence in 1946 leftist rebels continued fighting, trying to establish a communist dictatorship. That proved difficult to do. A major reorganization took place in the 1960s, resulting in the creation of the NPA in 1969. The new communist rebel organization adopted the Chinese “Maoist” long term strategy. That was not very successful despite lots of economic and social problems they could promise to fix if they were in charge. Enthusiasm for a "communist solution" went sharply downhill after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European communist allies between 1989 and 1991. That massive failure of communist states left the NPA much weaker ideologically and vulnerable to subsequent amnesty programs. A decade ago, NPA leaders admitted that they had only a small fraction of their peak (in the 1980s) strength of 26,000 armed members. There were some serious attempts to reverse the decline in popularity. NPA gunmen were instructed to behave better around civilians and the NPA were found giving some civilians, especially health or aid workers, cash compensation of a few hundred dollars each for wounds received during NPA attacks on soldiers or police. The government increased its efforts to provide medical care for such victims of NPA violence, the NPA tried to compete and found they couldn’t afford it. Many NPA members arrested recently were wanted for banditry and similar crimes.

Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is now regularly obtained from local civilians or NPA members that surrendered. Because of that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested or killed, even in traditional strongholds like Bukidnon and Negros Occidental provinces.

Philippine Islamic terrorist activity, mainly in the Moslem south, is rapidly disappearing. The autonomous Moslem regional government plays a role in that, encouraging Moslems to resist, not aid the remaining Islamic terror groups. The government offers amnesty to those who surrender and are not accused of serious crimes like murder or kidnapping. This has played a major role in reducing the number of Islamic terrorists still active to about fifty. Since the autonomous Moslem Bangasamoro area was created in 2014, diehard separatist groups like BIFF, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Abu Sayyaf were treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around though not nearly as actively as they were before 2014. Bangasamoro security forces cooperate with the army to find and shut down these outlaw groups. Since 2014 this joint effort has largely eliminated Abu Sayyaf, BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) rebels and several smaller Islamic terrorist groups. These groups have not disappeared, but have become much less active because of declining membership. With only a few dozen member left there are not enough to form active groups for carrying out attacks or kidnapping for ransom.

May 16, 2023: Near the northern border of the South China Sea (off Okinawa) a Chinese carrier task force carried out a live fire exercise employing a destroyers and frigate that were part of the carrier escort group. China has two operational aircraft carriers with a third on the way.

May 14, 2023: In the south (Surigao del Sur province) three NPA gunmen died when they encountered an army patrol and opened fire. There has been less NPA activity in the province during the last year. There aren’t many NPA members left in the province and they avoid encounters with the army. For over a year now the NPA tactics in the province concentrate on non-violent activities that restrict attacks to politicians seen as corrupt. In several cases armed NPA men raided homes of candidates and stole weapons. The homes raided are those of candidates that refused demands for extortion. This less-violent (than usual) NPA effort to influence the 2022 May elections. These NPA tactics are a result of declining membership and increasingly effective efforts by the military to defeat NPA violence. The NPA is trying to rebuild support in rural areas and reduce the number of tips sent via cell phones to security forces reporting NPA activity.

May 13, 2023: In order to make it clear to China and anyone else traveling through Filipino portions of the South China Sea, the Philippines is placing navigational buoys within its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), starting with five buoys, each featuring a Filipino flag, in areas around the Spratly Islands.

May 9, 2023: At Clark Air Base Filipino and U.S. Air Force personnel underwent joint training for the 9th day. These exercises will continue for three more days. Another round of this training will take place in July.

May 8, 2023: The navy put two more Israeli-made FAIC (F ast-Attack Interdiction Craft) offshore patrol boats into service.

May 3, 2023: In the south (Negros Occidental province) soldiers sought to arrest a famer suspected of being an NPA member. The farmer was armed and fired on the soldiers before he was shot dead. Two soldiers and a civilian bystander were wounded. Several hundred other civilians temporarily left their homes until the fighting was over. Negros Occidental used to have several active NPA groups but losses to the army and declining popular support for the communist group have reduced NPA member ship to a few armed individuals who are holding out for a return of the group to active operations. Nationwide there are believed to be only two active NPA armed groups still active. Another twenty formerly active NPA groups are dormant, each with only a few individual members still armed but not active. NPA has lost popular support and, like communism in general, is seen as a failed cause.




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