The government has told oil companies to hold off on drilling for natural gas off Reed bank. This is within Filipino territory but China threatens to use force to prevent drilling. Two years ago China interfered with Philippines supported oil exploration in Reed Bank, which is considered part of 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 considers itself the owner of the Spratleys and has been increasingly aggressive in enforcing that claim. 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 nation’s 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. has been lukewarm in its response to this Filipino request. The Philippines has had oil and gas exploration going on in the Reed Bank area since 2005. Drilling was supposed to start last year. The Philippines really needs the income from this project.
While the long sought peace deal with Islamic separatists (MILF) was signed last October, the negotiators are still working on the details. Some 70 percent of these items have been agreed to so far, but some very contentious issues remain. Most involve money and the extent of the autonomy that will exist down south. In addition there are still Moslems hostile to the deal. There are also planned elections to determine which parts of the south will be part of Bangsamoro (the new autonomous Moslem area). Moslems are a minority (8 percent) of the Filipino population and
only about a third of the 22 million people in the south (Mindanao and the smaller southern islands) are Moslem. The rest are Christians, many who do not want to share the island with an independent Moslem state but might be persuaded to accept an autonomous Moslem area. Most of the Moslem population in the south is intermixed with Christians, and the radical Moslems wanted these Christians expelled. But the radical Moslems were not strong enough to force the majority Christians out. Many Moslem majority areas have become largely Christian in the last few decades. The Christian majority has been encroaching on the sparsely populated areas of the Moslem south for over a century. This movement of Christians has accelerated as the economy has improved in the last decade. Many Moslems see their culture threatened, but armed resistance has not done much to help. The Moslems are outnumbered and have been losing battles for decades. Radical Islam has not been able to halt this process, and fewer and fewer young Moslems are willing to die for that cause. But many young Moslems are willing to become bandits and outlaws, and that is what many of the rebels down south have turned into. The new autonomous government will have major problems with outlaws, Islamic radicals, dissident separatists (like BIFF), corruption, and clan feuds. Many of the armed MILF members want to keep their weapons (there are estimated to be over three million firearms in the Philippines, which has a population of 90 million).
Bangsamoro will be off to a tumultuous start, which may end badly, even if all the details are worked out and the autonomous region established.
January 18, 2013: Outside the capital police arrested a wanted Abu Sayyaf leader (Suhod Salasim). Several weapons were also seized with Salasim, who is believed responsible for organizing several kidnapping operations in the south.
January 17, 2013: In the south (Sulu Sea) an American mine sweeper ran aground on a reef at 2 AM while moving through the area, apparently using bad maps. After two days the 79 crew were taken off as salvage ships figured out how to get the 1,300 ton ship free. The mine sweeper hull is intact but it is stuck on the reef. The Philippines is surrounded by shallow waters that are full of reefs and shoals that are just below the surface.
Leaders from the MNLF (a Moslem separatist group that made peace with the government in the 1990s) tried to convince an Abu Sayyaf group in the south (Sulu island) to release four men (a Japanese, a Jordanian, and two Filipinos) that were being held for ransom. The Japanese man had been held for three years. The families of all four were not able to raise the amounts Abu Sayyaf demanded and the Islamic terrorists told the MNLF men that the four would not be released without substantial ransom payments. Abu Sayyaf is holding at least ten people for ransom, most of them on Sulu island.
January 13, 2013: The government began a six month ban on carrying firearms openly. The ban covers the carrying of firearms, the hiring of armed bodyguards by political candidates, and the transporting of weapons, explosives, and other bomb making materials. The ban does not include the police, armed forces, and senior members of the government. Hunters and people with guns at home for defense are not being bothered. Police are after men who walk around public places with guns, to intimidate people (usually as part of election campaigns). Checkpoints are being established in areas of heavy gun activity and those found carrying guns in the vehicle will be arrested. The guns are seized and those carrying them are fined. This six month ban is in response to calls to declare a permanent total gun ban and in an attempt to curb election campaign deaths. The next national elections are in May.
In the south (outside Davao City) ten NPA gunmen ambushed and killed four unarmed soldiers who were on their way to a market.
January 10, 2013: Japan and the Philippines have agreed to increase cooperation in security and diplomatic efforts to block Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and Western Pacific in general. As part of the new cooperation Japan will sell the Philippines ten new patrol ships (which will arrive next year) and two older ones (that will arrive this year).
January 9, 2013: China has threatened to oppose any Filipino effort to rebuild an airfield and other facilities on one of the Spratly Islands. Several countries claim all or parts of the Spratlys but China also claims everything in the South China Sea.
January 8, 2013: The U.S. told the Philippines that an American target drone (UAV) found floating off the Philippines had been launched by a U.S. destroyer last September off Guam. The drone was found off the coast on the 6th by Filipino fishermen, who hauled it back to a beach. A Filipino naval officer recognized the UAV as a BQM-74E Chukar III target drone. This jet powered target drone has a max range of 600 kilometers, and the operator lost control of it off Guam and it went off and hit the water out of site of the ships. It was believed lost but actually landed intact and then drifted over 2,000 kilometers until it reached the Philippines. The Chukar is designed to float so that it can be recovered and reused.
January 6, 2013: In Atimonan (Quezon, 170 kilometers southeast of the capital) fifteen police at a checkpoint fired on two vehicles containing 13 men. All 13 were killed and one policeman was wounded. The police described it as a gun battle, but a later investigation concluded that it was an ambush and that there was no return fire. Over 200 rounds were fired at the vehicles. The victims included a known gang leader, along with three policemen, two airmen, and two intelligence agents who were apparently friendly with the gang boss (who controlled gambling in the area).