Philippines: Ranking The Threats

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August 3, 2022: The major threat to the Philippines remains the high levels of corruption that prevent the Philippines from having the same levels of prosperity and economic development as its neighbors. Corruption was always seen as a problem but in the last few decades it became obvious that the Philippines was a special case, and not in a good way. Gaining general agreement that something must be done was the easy part. Coming up with a solution requires extraordinary efforts and leadership. That high standard has not been achieved yet, but progress is being made. China hoped to exploit the high degree of corruption in the Philippines and made some progress before most Filipinos realized what was going on and acted accordingly. Other nations in the regions had similar experiences and responses but the Filipinos were slower in dealing with this so the Chinese were able to enlist some corrupt Filipino leaders.

Yet China itself is now seen as the second most dangerous threat to the Philippines, displacing the separatist violence in the Moslem south and the communist rebels throughout the country. These threats have been much diminished in the last decade. In part this was because of some progress in curing corruption, which was long the reason that the Moslem and leftist violence thrived.

Efforts to reduce the Chinese threat includes reducing corrupt Chinese influence in the Philippines. That is the main reason why the new Filipino government is canceling three Chinese financed railroad construction projects worth nine billion dollars. This was part of a $24 billion Chinese proposal for projects that improved Filipino ports and transportation networks. Cancelation of these projects has been under consideration for over a year because of vague loan terms and Chinese failure to perform. The Chinese are believed to be using the loan program as a weapon to coerce the Philippines into making concessions in the South China Sea.

A national opinion survey conducted at the end of June found that Filipinos trusted the United States, Australia and Japan the most while trusting China and Russia the least. Respondents were asked to rank a list of ten nations in terms of trustworthiness. The results of the survey were, in order of trust; the United States, Australia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Britain, Indonesia, India, Russia and China. There was some support for China but the U.S. had more than three times as much support. This meant the Americans had the support of most Filipinos while China had only a small minority. Only Russia and China had the majority of Filipinos mistrusting them. Trust of Russia used to be positive but the February invasion of Ukraine and Chinese support for it made Russia nearly as untrustworthy as China to most Filipinos. Until China expanded its “lost territory” claims to the South China Sea nearly two decades ago. China was seen as a potential ally of, and investor in, the Philippines. Despite numerous Filipino diplomatic efforts, China refused to compromise on its claims. At this point China is seen as the greatest threat to the Philippines, especially since the Chinese appear to have additional claims on Filipino territory and independence as a nation.

Students Of Sun Tsu

The Chinese strategy in the South China Sea is the result of once more applying ancient Chinese methods that have always worked, but required lots of patience and persistence to make that happen. This ancient wisdom was first codified in print 2,500 years ago by Sun Tzu. He was an experienced and successful military commander as well as an able communicator. He put his experiences on paper and his “Art of War” became a classic in China. Often dismissed as impractical or out of date, the Art of War proved to be correct but required strong leadership and persistence to use. So far it is working in the South China Sea. Chinese claims have no standing when it comes to existing international law and agreements. Yet China is slowly seeking control over the entire South China Sea and is willing to spend as much time as it requires to achieve recognition as the undisputed owner of the South China Sea.

This is also seen as the ancient “death of a thousand cuts' ' strategy China has used for centuries and is being blatantly applied, for the first time, on vast maritime areas. The fishing resources alone are enormously valuable and, based on past Chinese performance, likely to be exploited to the point where there are not many fish left to catch. There is also offshore oil and gas and much else on the bottom of the shallow waters of the South China Sea. So far, the Chinese threat has proved immune to accommodation. China wants it all and the only question now is will China risk war over their territorial claims. Sun Tsu pointed out that the most valuable victories are those achieved without actually fighting. This requires brinkmanship and intimidation without lethal force. That describes a lot of Chinese diplomacy and military policies.

July 30, 2022: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) Ian de la Rama, a regional commander of the NPA communist rebels was killed, along with two of his subordinates during their attempt to evade the soldiers tracking them. It is unclear how many NPA gunmen were in the group. Soldiers caught up with the NPA group four times and there was an exchange of fire. During the final gunbattle the bodies of de la Rama and two of his subordinates were found, along with a large quantity of weapons and equipment. There may have been other men in the group but the troops were unable to track them further. The army often hires local men as trackers because they know the local terrain better, often better than any NPA groups operating in the area. The army responds quickly to tips, often called in via cell phone, about the presence of known or unknown gunmen.

Currently there is cell phone coverage in about 95 percent of the Philippines. As a poor country, cell phones were a major and affordable development because without cell phones most rural areas were never going to get landline phone service, which was much more expensive to extend to sparsely populated rural areas. In contrast it is cheaper to establish cell phone towers in any rural area where there are enough people who can afford a cheap cell phone and monthly service or prepaid service for those who cannot afford monthly service. The cell phones are a major boost to the rural economies and often provide banking services for the first time. These banking services include the ability for expatriates to inexpensively send money home to family members who have cell phones with a banking service app installed. Rural farmers and merchants have better information about markets for local products and items locals need or want to purchase.

Many rural families have kin living abroad and sending money back to their family. This is a major economic factor for many Filipinos. Ten million Filipinos work overseas and send money home. These remittances are currently about $33 billion a year, which is about nine percent of national GDP. In effect, a fifth of the Filipino workforce is employed outside the Philippines and twelve percent of households in the Philippines depend on remittance income. Filipinos are very popular overseas workers because of their energy, skills and ability to speak English well. There are no jobs at home for all this talent because of the corruption that stifles economic growth.

Worldwide Filipino remittances income has the greatest impact on the home country. Two other nations (China and India) receive more remittance income ($60-70 billion each) but both these nations have far larger populations and GDP. One of the side effects of those remittances is the ability of many Filipinos to own cell phones, which made it economically practical to extend cell service to remote areas. This is a common pattern in many poor nations that depend on a lot of remittance income and cell phone companies feature these very real benefits when they expand into a new nation or a region in a nation. The demand is already there because even in nations with limited cell phone service there are a few people in unserved rural areas who own a cell phone and will use it when they visit a nearby town or city of service. Cell phones have been a curse of Islamic terrorists, bandits and unpopular rebels like the NPA.

July 26, 2022: In the south (Negros Oriental province) soldiers, acting on a tip, confronted ten armed NPA rebels. In a brief gun battle troops killed three of them while the others fled. Soldiers seized a 9mm submachine gun and three pistols (two .45 pistols and a .38 revolver). So far this month the NPA has lost eight members in Negros and last month 19 armed NPA members surrendered to the army. There are two groups (or “fronts' ') active in the area and both have suffered heavy losses since 2019 and gained few new recruits.

The NPA has been suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units depended on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This was 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 which peace terms are acceptable 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 long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Those actions 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 location of NPA camps or weapons storage sites is considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked and weapons storage sites seized indicates that the 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 maintained its status as 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.

A major blow to NPA personnel was the members in general was the Islamic terrorist and Moslem separatist violence in the south sharply declined after the 2014 vote by the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines to establish an autonomous Moslem region. This consisted of the southwest coast of the large southern island Mindanao and the string of smaller islands, mainly Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. The new Moslem entity was called Bangsamoro, and 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 in Bangsamoro.

Bangsamoro 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 Bangsamoro and continually lost support and members since 2014, but are still around but not nearly as active as they were before 2014. Most of the Army JTFs (Joint Task Force) units are now in Bangsamoro where they concentrate, with the help of local civilians and security forces, to track down the eliminate the few remaining Islamic terrorists and communist NPA rebels.

July 16, 2022: The U.S. Navy conducted another FONOP (freedom of navigation operations) by sending a destroyer into the Spratly Islands, an area of the South China Sea 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. carried out a similar FONOP in the area three days earlier. Since 2020 the Americans have taken a stronger stand against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are 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 and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression.

July 14, 2022: In the south (Basilan province) an army checkpoint halted and attempted to search two men and the two tried to flee. One was shot dead and found to be carrying a landmine and an assault rifle in a sack. The other man escaped on a motorcycle. The dead man was identified as a bomb builder for several Islamic terrorist factions.

July 12, 2022: The Philippine Army received two Merkava AVLB (Armored Vehicle-Launched Bridge) vehicles from Israeli firm Elbit. The two AVLBs cost $27 million and are needed because the army has spent $172 for thirty Israeli light tanks. Twenty of the tanks are 30 ton tracked vehicles while eight are 15-ton wheeled 8x8 vehicles based on an APC (Armored personnel carrier) that carry a crew of two plus twelve passengers. Both use the same turret, which contains a 105mm cannon and 12.7mm machine-gun as well as a modern fire control system that includes a thermal imager. There are also tracked vehicles based on the tank chassis, one is a command vehicle and the other is a tank recovery vehicle that can tow any of the new armored vehicles that have been damaged. The Merkava AVLB is based on the M1074 AVLB Elbit and an American firm developed for the U.S. Army based on an M1A1 tank chassis. Israeli forces use a similar, but locally produced, Merkava tank. Both AVLBs provide an 18-meter (57 foot) bridge that can be emplaced within minutes and carry vehicles weighing up to 6o tons.

Israeli forces don’t need AVLBs because the geography of Israel and potential adversaries don’t require it. The Philippines is a tropical nation with lots more rainfall and rivers. The Philippines is an island (or islands, over 7,000 of them) nation whose main threat is China. Until now the Philippines was the only nation in the region threatened by China that had no tanks. Israel doesn’t use light tanks but was able to develop the Sabrah, which won a Filipino contract for light tanks. The Philippines, like India and many other southeast Asian nations have found Israel to be a good source of affordable modern weapons and equipment. Israel is a major (number 10 worldwide) exporter of weapons and is the smallest nation in the world to design and build its own tanks. This was the result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which took Israel by surprise and inflicted heavy losses before Israel counter-attacked and defeated Egypt and Syria and their larger number of modern Russian tanks. Israel carefully analyzes the results of each war it fights and makes changes to deal with problems encountered. The 1973 war prompted Israel to start designing and building its own tanks.

July 11, 2022: Since January 2022, (JTF) Central has neutralized a total of 44 communist terrorist group members. Of the 44, five were killed and 39 surrendered. JTFs are specialized organization created to deal with communist rebels and Islamic terrorists.

July 10, 2022: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) two NPA communist rebels were killed in two separate clashes with JTF (Joint Task Force) soldiers. JTF operations in the province have killed five NPA men since January while another 39 surrendered.

July 7, 2022: Wanted Filipino Islamic terrorist leader Hajar Binadbul Mubin was arrested when he got off a flight from neighboring Malaysia. Mubin fled to Malaysia in 2015 and halted his Islamic terrorism activity with Abu Sayyaf while also assuming a new identity and documents portraying him as just another Malaysian who had a job as a security guard. Mubin did quietly return to his specialty, planning and organizing major operations. Malaysian counterterror forces detected and detained Mubin and discovered his ID was fake. Mubin had not actually committed any other crimes in Malaysia but the Philippines had several outstanding (since 2012) arrest warrants. Malaysia would send him back after he served prison time for his false identity crimes. That was supposed to happen last year but covid10 lockdowns delayed the transfer until now. Now Mubin will stand trial for the decade old charges that include murder and kidnapping while he was a senior leader for Abu Sayyaf.

July 1, 2022: In the south (Negros Oriental province) soldiers, acting on a tip, confronted ten armed NPA rebels. In a brief gun battle troops killed three of them while the others fled. Soldiers seized a 9mm submachine gun and a large quantity of ammunition.

Elsewhere in the south (Sulu Province) two Abu Sayyaf members were killed, So far this year 17 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered.

June 30, 2022: Rodrigo Duterte, on or before last day as president, cancelled a $227 million deal with Russia for the purchase of 16 Mi-17 transport helicopters because of the U.S. sanctions on Russia. This was done quietly so incoming president Marcos could review the decision. The purchase contract was signed in November 2021 and an initial down payment was made in January of this year, a month before the Russians invaded Ukraine and triggered stronger sanctions that apparently made the Mi-17 deal illegal. Russia was to begin delivering the helicopters in 2023.

 

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