Philippines: Hung Out To Dry


July 26, 2012: The Philippines is finding itself without allies in its confrontation with China over ownership of small islands, reefs, and shoals belonging to the Philippines, at least according to international law. China is insisting that international agreements do not apply in these disputes. Chinese warships entering the Filipino exclusive economic zone (anything within 380 kilometers of land) are violating a 2002 agreement by nations bordering the South China Sea. This aggression is part of a plan to obtain control over fishing and oil exploration throughout the South China Sea (a 3.5 million square kilometer area). This would include such activities less than a hundred kilometers from the coasts of most other nations bordering the South China Sea. The only aspect of International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) that China seems inclined to recognize is that waters 22 kilometers from land are under the jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. Ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission.

After signing the 2002 agreement China changed its mind three years ago and is now claiming ownership of the entire South China Sea. China bases this claim on centuries of Chinese economic activity (fishing and the movement of merchant ships) in the area. China considers its civilization and culture to be the oldest in the region and, in cases like this, possessing superior claims to nations that came to be long after China got organized (several thousand years ago).

Last year China interfered with Philippines supported oil exploration in the Spratly Islands. This exploration work was done 230 kilometers off the coast of the Philippine's Palawan Island, which is well within the internationally recognized EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) that extends 380 kilometers from the coast. China denies such interference. China admits that it had research ships in the area and makes it clear that any oil exploration or drilling activity in waters claimed by China will be at risk of interference by Chinese ships and aircraft. This alone is enough to scare off most oil companies.

The Chinese strategy is to make it difficult for other nations to fish or search for oil and gas in the disputed waters. China will then offer to negotiate and share the economic benefits. The other nations will probably be offered some fishing rights in waters of the EEZ of each nation neighboring the South China Sea but China will keep all the oil and gas outside each nations territorial waters (22 kilometers from the coast). China is assuming that no nation, including the United States, will confront China with military force in these matters. China itself will use military force sparingly. "Illegal" oil exploration or fishing, for example, will encounter Chinese civilian ships, and a few small military ships, that "accidently" destroy fishing nets or disrupt oil exploration activities. This will, as it has in the past, involve "accidental" collisions with the offending ships. Any use of force against the offending Chinese civilian ships will be met with force by Chinese warplanes and warships. The Philippines is hoping that the United States will provide the military muscle to make China back off.

The U.S. says it will protect its allies, like the Philippines, but this apparently only extends to direct attack on Filipino land territory, not disputed offshore waters. The Philippines is trying to convince the Americans to help protect their EEZ and all the billions of dollars-worth of fish and oil. While the U.S. is giving the Philippines $30 million to improve coastal surveillance, and the Philippines has bought another 40 military aircraft (that will arrive in the next two years), China still has overwhelming military force. Only the U.S. can stand up to China in such a confrontation.

In the south the government is reminding the MILF that there can be no final peace deal until the MILF brings it feuding factions under control. The local MILF units (of a few dozen to a few hundred armed men) are usually recruited from a single clan or small tribe and also serve as a clan militia (or a rival to the official clan militia approved by clan elders). Over the last decade these local MILF "base commands" have increasingly been at war with each other. In the last week two of these militias battled each other in Maguindanao province and forced over a thousand people to flee their homes. It's this constant clan warfare that led to the formation of MILF and its rebellion against the Christian majority in the more populous north. There are violent clashes between Christian clans but far fewer and of less intensity than among the Moslem clans.

The government is under increasing pressure, and suffering public embarrassment, as billions of dollars in foreign investment is threatened by bandits and leftist (NPA) rebels in the north. Mining and logging operations face very expensive extortion demands (called "revolutionary taxes" by the rebels) which the government forbids the companies to pay. But the army and police cannot shut down the NPA and criminal gangs in the rural areas and this means the foreign investments, including local and foreign staff, are at risk. Equipment and facilities are destroyed and staff killed. Increasingly the investors are withdrawing and new ones are not stepping up. This is one of the reasons why the Philippines has the lowest economic growth rate in the region. Filipinos want jobs and they see government inability to deal with crime as a major factor in the high poverty rate.

July 23, 2012: MILF complained that an unannounced police raid on a MILF base was a violation of the ceasefire. The police justified not notifying MILF (as per the ceasefire agreement) because they were looking for al Qaeda suspects and that some MILF factions were providing Islamic terrorists sanctuary and not notifying police (as per the ceasefire agreement). There have been several such violations in the past but MILF leadership dismisses them as "misunderstandings." The problem is that many southern Moslems, especially MILF members, support Islamic terrorism, especially attacks on infidels (non-Moslems).

July 22, 2012: In the north (Quezon province) a mass grave, with at least 30 skeletons, was discovered. The dead were believed to be members of the communist NPA rebels. The NPA has a history of internal purges, which have left hundreds of members killed after being suspected of disloyalty. This grave apparently contains victims of one of those purges. Similar mass graves have been found in the past.

July 21, 2012:  China has declared one of the Paracel islands it occupies to be a Chinese municipality (city). This island, which only has an area of 13 kilometers, is but a small part of the new city. China claims that Sansha actually covers over two million square kilometers of the South China Sea. Sansha currently has a permanent population of about a thousand people who have to be supplied (even with water) at great expense from the Chinese mainland. As a "city" Sansha requires a larger military garrison. The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, which occupies them, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In 1974, China fought a naval battle with the South Vietnamese near the Paracel islands and took control after sinking one of the four Vietnamese warships and chasing the others away. China has been expanding military facilities on these tiny islands for several years. Among the more notable additions has been an expanded electronic monitoring facility and a lengthened runway, now long enough to support Su-30 fighters. Several large fuel tanks have also been built, indicating an intention to base Su-30 fighters there. Eventually, over 3,000 civilian and military personnel will be stationed in Sansha. This strengthens claims on unoccupied islets and reefs, including many within the Filipino EEZ.

July 17, 2012: Not only have Chinese patrol boats returned to Scarborough Shoal in the last few weeks but Chinese fishing boats are again operating there again and have even erected a flimsy barrier (with rowboats, rope, and fishing nets) across the entrance to the lagoon and daring Filipino fishing boats to cross it. Scarborough Shoal is in waters the Philippines claim (according to international law). The shoal is only 250 kilometers from the Philippines and 1,200 kilometers from China. Despite this, China claims ownership of Scarborough Shoal but has not yet used deadly force to assert that claim. What China is apparently doing is sending patrol boats from their fishery protection service. China has about half a dozen maritime patrol forces. These include the navy and coast guard, plus others that deal with fishing, smuggling, shipping, and so on. According to China they are in compliance with the June deal, as they never agreed that Chinese fishing boats could not operate around Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines tried to enlist ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or American help in confronting China over Scarborough Shoal. But so far neither the United States nor ASEAN is willing to get involved in a direct confrontation with China over the matter.

July 15, 2012: On Basilan soldiers apparently disrupted an Abu Sayyaf ambush of a priest. The soldiers were patrolling the area and surprised some Islamic terrorists and attacked. No soldiers were hurt but the Abu Sayyaf men quickly retreated, leaving several trails of blood. The soldiers later discovered that a local priest was approaching the site where the clash took place and may have been targeted for an ambush.

July 13, 2012: An ASEAN meeting failed to agree to oppose China's violation of many members EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast). China has a staunch (and paid for) ally in ASEAN (Cambodia) who blocked all attempts to unify and oppose China.

July 12, 2012: In the Spratly Islands a Chinese Navy frigate ran aground while on patrol. The Spratly Islands are basically a collection of atolls, shoals, and islets, plus a lot of land that lurks just below the water (depending on whether the tide is high or low). It's a tricky area for larger ships, like frigates, to navigate. It took three days for the Chinese to get salvage ships out there to pull the frigate off the shoal and escort it back to port for repairs. The frigate ran around within the Filipino EEZ but China insisted that the incident took place within a Chinese EEZ (based on disputed Chinese ownership of nearby islets and reefs).





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