President Duterte is reviving the old Cold War tactic where a nation courted by two superpowers (in this case China and the U.S.) plays the superpowers off each other by demanding more and more aid, goodies and other concessions. While China isn’t backing away from occupying offshore areas (in the South China Sea) that belong to the Philippines, China is offering the Philippines all sorts of gifts. Duterte is gracefully accepting the gifts with no strings attached and insisting on negotiations for the “gifts” that may contain hidden costs. Duterte isn’t giving up any legal claims the Philippines has to South China Sea areas occupied or threatened by China. The Philippines isn’t giving up any allies it has in the confrontation with China. This includes the United States, which Duterte criticizes but does not cut ties with or refuse military assistance from. China is playing along, in part because there are no better options and, given the size of the Chinese economy, it isn’t all that expensive. The Americans go along as well, as it is China that is spending the most on this particular competition.
In April the American commander of U.S. naval forces in the western Pacific confirmed that China had built sufficient port and aircraft facilities on islands in the South China Sea to quickly station warships and combat aircraft at these new facilities and, in effect, declare that it controlled the South China Sea and dare anyone to oppose that control. Many of the islands are artificial, made by dredging up sand from nearby reefs and shallow waters. Seven reefs belonging to the Philippines have undergone this transformation and commercial satellite photos already show military aircraft and other equipment showing up on these artificial islands. Apparently, China has also installed anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of these islands (Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef, all just west of the Philippines) in addition to EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment, including jammers as well are arriving on the new islands. China did not announce installing this military equipment but aerial and satellite photos show the equipment appearing during April, if not earlier. Thanks to commercial photo satellites it is easy to keep track of what China is doing on the artificial islands they created in Filipino waters. Mischief Reef, which an international court agreed belonged to the Philippines, now has a Chinese military base and an airstrip that is regularly used by Chinese military aircraft. In addition, China has installed electronic surveillance and jamming equipment there in addition to air defense and anti-ship missiles. Filipino politicians and most of the Filipino voters they represent are not happy about this.
ISIL On Idle
The Filipino branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is battered and much reduced in membership over the last year, but still exists. The BIFF and Maute factions are still carrying out attacks, just fewer (maybe one a month) and less effective (few casualties). Most local ISIL members belong to Abu Sayyaf but that is because Abu Sayyaf began as a gang of veteran local bandits in Sulu and Basilan provinces and knew how to make money. Abu Sayyaf never lost their bandit attitude and aptitude. While much diminished over the last few years there are still several hundred Abu Sayyaf members active and they still have cash, and about a dozen captives they are seeking ransom for. The government has cracked down hard on those paying ransom and increased the number of troops and police searching for (and often encountering) Abu Sayyaf. There do not appear to be any more hardcore local ISIL leaders left. All of those were killed in the last year and their replacements turned out to be very low key and much less aggressive. That may change but for the moment the remaining Filipino ISIL members are still on the run.
May 13, 2018: In the south (Sulu) troops clashed with a large group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen. After an hour long battle the Islamic terrorists escaped into the bush, apparently taking their wounded with them. Abu Sayyaf lost ten men while two soldiers were killed. It was unclear if this group had any of the Abu Sayyaf hostages with them. To be on the safe side artillery fire was used carefully to avoid hitting any captives the enemy might have.
May 11, 2018: The government signed an agreement with Kuwait to more effectively regulate how Kuwait treats 262,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait. The Filipinos in Kuwait are a major source of remittance money coming back to the Philippines each year. China also receives a lot of remittance money from overseas citizens. During 2017 China received $64 billion in remittances from Chinese living abroad. This was the second largest amount for any nation in the world. The world leader is India, which received $69 billion in 2017 closely followed by China with $64 billion, the Philippines $33 billion, Mexico $31 billion and Nigeria $22 billion. The Philippines is the leader when it comes to the portion of GDP coming from remittances. Aware of that one of the “gifts” China has offered is to legalize about 200,000 Filipinos working illegally in China and allow another 300,000 legal workers in, the Philippines is eager to close this deal. China is suffering a labor shortage because of a declining birth rate (a side effect of prosperity) and is accepting more and more legal foreign workers.
May 9, 2018: Police revealed that the war on drugs had, between July 2016 and April 30th 2018, resulted in 4,251 drug trade operatives or suspects killed. This is the official police count which the government can document. Local and international opponents to the drug war claim that over 20,000 have died but offer no proof other than that during the same period police reported another 16,000 homicides with possible drug connections. At the same time, there have been nearly 143,000 drug related arrests (including 217 elected officials, 48 members of the security forces and 239 other government employees). Many suspected leaders of drug gangs have been arrested and then released because of “insufficient evidence” (plus lots of lawyers and possibly bribes). Meanwhile, the majority of Filipinos support the war on drugs and have from the beginning.
May 8, 2018: A Japanese four-engine P-1 maritime patrol aircraft held joint patrol exercises off Palawan Island with Filipino forces. This was all near areas where China has taken control of parts of the South China Sea that are technically part of the Philippines. The Japanese P-1 was part of the 34th Balikatan international joint exercises. Elsewhere in the area 8,000 American and Filipino military personnel also conducted joint training. Philippines recently (March) received three more twin-engine C-90 patrol aircraft from Japan and now have five. Some of these trained with the P-1.
May 7, 2018: In the south (Sulu) troops clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf men during a search for two policewomen who had been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf recently. Three of the Islamic terrorists were killed and seven soldiers wounded during the clash. Abu Sayyaf still holds as many as fifteen people, most of them Filipino, for ransom. Abu Sayyaf wants $100,000 for the two policewomen.
In the north (Quezon City) police arrested a known Filipino ISIL (Maute group) member, Unday Makadato. The arrest came because of tip by a suspicious local.
May 5, 2018: In the south (Sulu) Abu Sayyaf released one of their Filipino hostages. This was apparently because of the intense military pressure to find two other Abu Sayyaf prisoners; policewomen seized in April. The released prisoner reported that the Abu Sayyaf group that held him, and three others, consisted of twelve armed men.
May 3, 2018: In the far north (Cagayan province) troops encountered 30 NPA gunmen and after 30 minute gun battle the NPA got away taking their casualties with them. Troops pursued and eventually found the body of one NPA gunman. Several days later one of the NPA gunmen involved surrendered, and brought his weapon with him. A growing number of veteran NPA gunmen are giving up.
May 2, 2018: In the south (Basilan) troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf and killed nine of the Islamic terrorists. Several other Abu Sayyaf men were wounded. Locals reported that about 40 Abu Sayyaf men were gathering in a remote village and the military responded with ground troops and air strikes.
May 1, 2018: The government released the official list of 207 village officials currently under investigation for suspected involvement in the illegal drugs trade. The list was released because local elections take place in two weeks and voters wanted to know who was officially suspect.
April 30, 2018: In the south (Bukidnon province) two off duty soldiers were ambushed by NPA gunmen. One soldier was killed.
April 29, 2018: In the south (Sulu) Abu Sayyaf gunmen kidnapped two off-duty policewomen. Abu Sayyaf later demanded $100,000 ransom for the two women. Instead, the security forces launched a large scale search operation which is still underway. After about two weeks the search efforts had left over a dozen Abu Sayyaf dead and many more wounded and on the run.
Elsewhere in the south (South Cotabato province) BIFF (another local ISIL faction) was responsible for a bomb at a church that went off and wounded two people. Another bomb was placed nearby but was discovered and disabled.
April 28, 2018: In the south (Negros Oriental) a local defense volunteer was ambushed and killed by NPA gunmen.
April 23, 2018: The leader of the NPA, living in European exile, accepted the Filipino government offer to return to the Philippines and participate in peace talks.
April 21, 2018: In the south (Davao del Sur province) troops came upon the NPA leader for a large part of the province and portions of Davao City as well. The NPA leader was killed and another NPA rebel was captured.