Philippines: And Now For Something Completely Different

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June 17, 2022: President-Elect Marcos takes office at the end of June and is already meeting with foreign officials from nations the Philippines considers essential partners in economic and security matters. This includes China, which is a special case of “frenemy.” China plays a major rule as an investor in the Filipino economy and trading partner. China is also actively seeking to assert ownership of vast offshore areas that are legally considered part of the Philippines. Worse, the Philippines gets most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea. That’s because the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles). Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China has territorial claims on.

The Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States that is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. That’s because the Chinese strategy does not involve a conventional attack but a combination of lawfare and the use of unique Chinese military forces. Most Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. This arrangement is not unusual as it is an ancient practice still used in many parts of the world. But the Chinese commercial naval militia ships are expected to collect intelligence and sometimes even risk damage and injuries by using their ships to block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should.

Illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are the biggest offenders. Most of the 5,500 Chinese built and operated commercial ships are much larger and usually operate legally. Some get involved, with government permission or under government orders, in smuggling. This usually involves transporting oil from embargoed nations like Iran. The oil is often transferred to a tanker operating legally. This is done at night and this has increasingly been spotted and hi-res video taken by American or allied nation maritime patrol aircraft. These videos make it possible to identify the ships involved and the Chinese deny any official involvement and don’t punish the Chinese crews and shipping companies involved.

In the South China Sea, China’s naval militia is the main threat to Filipino efforts to protect islands, reefs and lucrative fishing grounds that are economically important. Other offshore areas have natural gas and oil that can be economically retrieved with new technology. The Philippines has ownership of these underwater treasure but China has the means to take and hold them using force. President-Elect Marcos is in a difficult situation with the U.S. as he relies on diplomatic immunity to legally visit the United States because he is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the most corrupt president to ever hold the office in the Philippines. This notorious kleptocrat died in 1989 and his son, the 64-year-old Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected president using the populist approach. The younger Marcos favors the nickname Bongbong, which comes from a popular stew but can also be interpreted as “fiery” or “inspirational.” The younger Marcos also favored BBM (Bong Bong Marcos). Politicians often adopt a nickname to enhance their popularity and such was the case with the son of Ferdinand Marcos, who has spent his entire adult life in politics and strives to revise the bad reputation of his father and his notoriously spendthrift wife Imelda. His father stole as much as $14 billion while in office and much of it has not been recovered. After the Marcos family fled to the United States the Philippines established the PCGG (Presidential Commission on Good Government) in 1986 and gave it legal powers to track down and retrieve the billions stolen by the former president Ferdinand Marcos. Since then, the PCGG has identified over half the stolen billions and recovered about half of that, which comes to $3.5 billion. Less than half of that has actually been returned to the Philippines and some of that was in turn stolen by senior politicians then in power. Based on BBMs past performance, if elected the PCGG will be gradually weakened and “disappeared.” BBM has been caught trying to withdraw some of the family billions before the PCGG froze the account. BNM lawyered up and carried out a PR campaign to repair the damage. BBM may have successfully gained access to some of the foreign bank accounts where much of the stolen money was hidden. No one has been able to prove this and that becomes a lot more difficult if BBM is elected president. This also complicates relationships with many Western nations that are trading partners and actively opposing Chinese claims on Filipino portions of the South China Sea.

June 12, 2022: In the south (Davao de Oro province) troops arrested six NPA (New People’s Army) members, with the help information provided by an NPA man who had earlier surrendered. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is increasingly obtained from 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 Davao de Oro and Bukidnon provinces.

The NPA continues its decline, especially since the loss of several senior leaders killed or captured since 2021, 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.

Two days earlier four NPA leaders surrendered in Davao de Oro province.

June 10, 2022: President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. said he would continue the war on drugs started by his predecessor, but avoid actions that offended foreign critics of how the war on drugs was conducted. Marcos also said he would be neutral in the Ukraine war and seek to maintain good relations with Russia. Marcos also wants to enhance economic and defense cooperation with Israel.

June 7, 2022: In the south (Sulu province) five more Abu Sayyaf surrendered. Currently Abu Sayyaf has only a few hundred active members and are short of cash, local support and new recruits. Kidnapping used to be a good source of cash, especially if foreigners could be taken. That has become more difficult and riskier because the military has increased the number and effectiveness of its land and naval patrols. That’s one reason for the move across the Sulu Sea, where Malaysian security forces stay in contact with their Filipino counterparts to locate and eliminate remaining Abu Sayyaf groups. Those now in Malaysia are not very active at all. They have few local supporters and consider Malaysia a refuge rather than an operating base for local attacks.

June 6, 2022: In the south (Maguindanao province) soldiers found and tried to arrest Abdulfatah Omar Alimuden, the spokesman for ISSA (IS Southeast Asia), the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise that includes Filipino members as well as smaller factions in Malaysia and Indonesia. Earlier this year army intel revealed that Filipino Abu Zacharia was the new head of ISSA. The army has carried out several successful operations against ISSA this year, which has prevented the group from carrying out many operations.

June 2, 2022: In the north (Ifugao province) the army continues an operation against BIFF leftist rebels in the province. The army is after a growing list of known BILL members it has obtained from BIFF members recently captured or surrendered. Once in army custody they often offer information on BIFF camps and hideouts in the area. Some of those who surrender are seeking protection of BIFF kill teams that go after defectors.

May 30, 2022: In Central Philippines (Cebu province) police killed four members of a Chinese kidnapping gang who opened fire when the police appeared. The hostage was unharmed. The dead kidnappers worked for a Chinese gambling operation and may have feared being extradited to China if captured alive. The Chinese gang kidnapped a local gambler who would not pay gambling debts. Chinese gangsters have become more of a problem that came with increased Chinese investment. Over two thousand illegal aliens, most of them Chinese, are arrested each year in the capital alone. Most of those arrested were participating in the growing Internet based criminal activities. After 2008 the Philippines slowly became a hotspot for computer hacking groups, and for nearly a decade the computer crime gangs were able to survive by bribing the right officials. Only when the cybercrime involved Islamic terrorism did the bribes not work. In 2016 the government legalized online gambling operations. These were to be regulated and taxed. Filipinos were forbidden to use the new online gaming sites because popular opinion in the country was that the online gambling sites were addictive and sometimes rigged. There was also an effort to eliminate a lot of the bribery that caused things like online gambling to become more of a problem than economic benefit. All this was complicated by new (since 2016) Chinese investment activity, which were part of the government effort to boost the economy. While the government was also at odds with China over illegal South China Sea claims, the Chinese were using large investments to reduce the popular hostility to what was going on in the South China Sea. The Chinese investments came with the usual demands that more Chinese be allowed to work in the Philippines. In return more Filipinos would be allowed to work in China. In 2016 the Filipino police were ordered by the new president (Rodrigo Duterte) to aggressively go after corruption and criminal activity. This was soon applied to the online gambling business, which were dominated by Chinese gangs. In addition to corrupting legal online gaming operations the new flood of Chinese gangsters led to the establishment of illegal online gaming operations. All this Chinese gangster activity led to more arrests and prosecutions. The Chinese government often cooperates because many of these gangsters are moving to the Philippines because police pressure in China was more intense. In foreign countries it was often possible to exploit the legal system and extradition treaties to avoid being sent back to China to face even more serious criminal charges. A growing number of Chinese arrests are the result of information provided by the American FBI, which had been investigating international computer and phone fraud and the hackers behind it. China has also provided information about Internet based criminals preying on individuals and businesses in China. In 2019 nearly two thousand illegal aliens were arrested in the Philippines, most of them Chinese. For all of 2018 only 500 illegal aliens were arrested. In 2019 nearly two million Chinese traveled to the Philippines, most of them tourists. Tourism has always been good for the economy but the growing number of Chinese tourists’ is accompanied by more Chinese gangsters looking for a safer place to work and skilled at corrupting local officials.

May 21, 2022: In the south (North Cotabato province) seven BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) surrendered to the army. There have been few violent encounters with BIFF forces in the last year, although there was some violence between two BIFF factions who carried out several attacks against each other. The BIFF factions involved 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. 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.

May 16, 2022: China finally compensated the owners of a Filipino fishing boat that was sunk by a Chinese naval reserve trawler three years ago near the Recto Bank, which is within the Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) but now claimed by China, along with many other fishing grounds within the Filipino EEZ. The Philippines has been demanding compensation since the sinking and China paid (via the company that owns the trawler) rather than risk another court case that would, like the last one, declare Chinese claims in the Filipino EEZ illegal. China continues its aggressive efforts to drive Filipinos away from key territory within the Filipino EEZ. President-Elect Marcos pledged to improve relations with China while also protecting Filipino territory.

 

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