China has casually created another crisis over who controls Pagasa Island. The Chinese have put a record number of ships around the island, most of them Chinese fishing boats pretending to be fishing but in reality members of the Chinese naval militia which is being used in unprecedented numbers. China insists it has not ordered its naval militia fishing boats to physically block Filipino commercial or military ship from getting to Pagasa. As a result of this it has become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening to cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. Filipinos have lived on the island since 1956 and there has been a Filipino military presence there since 1970. China has been increasingly belligerent about its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. After 2014 Chinese military and civilian ships were showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels tried (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter. On days that supplies are being delivered to Pagasa China often has more than 80 ships in the area. The Filipino coast guard has a lot of other areas to watch and cannot really afford to maintain a major presence off Pagasa and the Chinese know it.
Many Chinese fishing ships are part of an unofficial but organized and paid naval militia. The Chinese maintain this force with subsidies (for building new fishing boats) and assurances that the Navy will assist Chinese fishermen in gaining access to foreign fishing areas and exclusive use of fishing grounds in international waters. The fishing boats are the most numerous and aggressive component of this militia. Overall the militia appears to consist of several hundred fishing and coastal cargo vessels. There are a hundred or so larger civilian ships, mostly ocean-going fishing trawlers, as well. The naval militia openly functions as a government supported organization and has headquarters in southern China. Any foreign criticism of the Chinese naval militia elicits only denials from the Chinese government.
President Duterte continues supporting the “China wants to be a friend” angle because he has not got the military resources to oppose Chinese aggression with any degree of success. Filipino legislators are complaining that their government seems unable to do anything about the Chinese aggression. Filipino and American diplomatic officials are still trying to decide what constitutes an “attack” that would trigger the mutual defense treaty. China is well aware of that and as is their custom the Chinese are avoiding any direct violence. This is a potentially dangerous game but so far the Chinese have been successful at it. Until the Americans agree that the Chinese aggression has triggered the mutual defense treaty the Philippines has no option other than trying to be friendly with China while documenting the growing acts of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
In the north (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon provinces) 45 members of the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) have surrendered and accepted amnesty. Nineteen of those who gave up were women. The NPA depends on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet 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 to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure the long-term survival of the organization. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Those factions 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 the locations of NPA camps or weapons storage sites is useful. 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. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines.
The National Police reported that since the war on drugs began three years ago nearly 1.5 million drug addicts have turned themselves in and the crime rate has declined 30 percent. Nearly 70 percent of Filipinos approve of the anti-drug effort mainly because their villages or neighborhoods are either free of drug activity or that such activity is much reduced. The illegal drug trade still exists but the ability to obtain so much information on drug operations over such a short period of time has provided previously unknown insights into the operations and extent of the illegal drug trade. Interviews of the drug users plus the enormous quantity of drug distribution documents seized, along with unprecedented quantities of illegal drugs themselves have revealed that the drug trade was much more extensive and entrenched than realized. It also became clear that the Philippines had such a large drug problem because it is an island nation or, rather, a nation of many islands. This makes it easier for drug smugglers to get their illegal product into the country. For that reason the coast guard and coastal security in general, are receiving more attention.
April 2, 2019: The government has sent a diplomatic protest to China over the more than 200 Chinese vessels surrounding Pagasa Island in an effort to prevent Filipino fishing boats, of Filipino ships of any sort, from operating there.
March 31, 2019: In the south (Negros Oriental), troops and police encountered resistance when they sought to use several search warrants to seek illegal weapon and ammo believed hidden in homes of NPA members or sympathizers. The searches recovered 51 firearms or explosive devices. Fourteen suspects were arrested and 14 were killed in gun battles.
March 29, 2019: In the north (Mountain province), police clashed with armed NPA rebels. One policeman was killed and one wounded.
March 28, 2019: The government reported that, so far this year, over 600 different Chinese ships (mainly navy, coast guard or naval militia) have been spotted off Pagasa Island, some of them showing up more than once. Currently, there are over 200 of these ships anchored or slowly moving around Pegasa.
March 25, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), marines clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen and in a series of clashes over the last 24 hours three of the Islamic terrorists were killed. The marines were searching for hostages Abu Sayyaf was believed to be holding in the area.
March 21, 2019: A group of Filipino fishing boat operators, backed by some former government officials, are preparing a lawsuit to put before the ICC (International Criminal Court), which the Philippines no longer recognizes. President Duterte announced in March 2018 that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC, a process that takes a year to become final and as of March 17th the process was complete. This is in response to UN members persuading the ICC to investigate the Philippines for its war on drugs and what some UN members are calling crimes against humanity. Filipino critics of the war on drugs back the continued ICC investigation and possible prosecution of senior government officials, including Duterte. Therefore the current ICC complaint against China is being pursued by Filipino citizens and not the Filipino government. All this is more about publicity and obtaining more foreign support against China. In response to that China has been using cash, threats and other incentives to gain international support for its South China Sea operation. So far that is working for China.
March 19, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), soldiers killed two veteran Abu Sayyaf members, one of them a notorious organizer of kidnapping operations. During the clash several other Abu Sayyaf gunmen escaped.
March 17, 2019: In the south (Maguindanao province), soldiers seized two more BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) camps in remote areas. While these camps were taken at least three Islamic terrorists were killed and some of those who fled were wounded. One camp contained several powerful bombs that had been recently assembled. BIFF has been under constant attack since September 2018. This is an effort to eliminate BIFF presence in Mindanao (where most BIFF members are). Over a hundred BIFF men have died so far and many others died of wounds or deserted. Along the way, the army had found many BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop and several others with evidence that bomb-building had taken place. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. What was not found by early 2019 was much evidence of BIFF members. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and had set no end date on the eradication campaign. The object was to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island (including Maguindanao province) and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicated that this was a possibility. But the reality is the BIFF are hardcore and consider themselves a branch of ISIL. BIFF has become a magnet for many Filipino Moslems who are unhappy with the Bangsamoro Moslem autonomy agreement and believe it does not go far enough (ISIL believes that all Filipinos should be Moslems). The BIFF camps captured since March 9th showed evidence of at least foreign Islamic terrorists still operating with BIFF. Captured BIFF members confirm that the foreign Islamic terrorists are still around and some of them are described as “Arabs.” So far this month over twenty BIFF men have been killed or captured.
March 11, 2019: In the south (Lanao del Sur province), troops clashed with about 20 ISIL gunmen and killed most of them while losing four soldiers. One of the dead may be Abu Dar, the local ISIL leader. DNA is being checked to confirm this. If the dead man is Abu Dar it is very bad news for ISIL. The local ISIL franchise consists of personnel from the Maute Group, BIFF and Abu Sayyaf. This Filipino branch is still trying to recruit and replace heavy losses it took during 2017 when ISIL forces sought to take the city of Marawi. That led to a major ISIL defeat and the loss of most of the senior leadership of all three factions. These three groups did manage to steal a lot of cash from banks in Marawi and that is being used, without much success, to entice new recruits. What discourages new recruits is the fact that most of the ISIL men who went off to capture Marawi in 2017 died there. In addition, the army is still very active in the areas where ISIL is seeking recruits. The clash today was the result of tips from local civilians. Many of the ISIL dead were in pieces because the army called in airstrikes to hit the fleeing Islamic terrorists.
March 10, 2019: In the south (Lanao del Sur province), police killed a local ISIL member who was also active as a drug dealer. Apparently, many of the local drug dealers were Islamic terrorists seeking ways to raise money to finance more terror attacks.