Philippines: The Gathering Storm

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January 13, 2015:   The army pointed out that NPA activity was down in 2014 because more people are providing tips (made easier with the growing use of cell phones) about where the leftist rebels are and what they are up to. NPA no longer has much popular support and increasingly relies on terror to generate fear. The leftist rebels are now unwelcome and under constant attack in areas they have operated in for decades. This has encouraged many NPA members to back peace negotiations, something leftist rebels have been doing with increasing frequency since so many communist dictatorships collapsed between 1989 and 1991.

One communist dictatorship that is still in power is China and China continues to be a problem for the Chinese people and all the neighbors. In response to the threat close military and diplomatic ties are being forged with Vietnam in an effort to better defeat Chinese claims on all of the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam are both expanding their naval forces, with the Philippines obtaining additional surface ships armed with anti-ship missiles while Vietnam has six submarines on order from Russia. Malaysia is also threatened by China but it not yet part of this military alliance. Malaysia recently received two submarines from France and the only nation Malaysia has major disputes with is China. Japan and South Korea have much larger fleets than these three southern nations and are also threatened by China.

The military buildup is for a worst case situation. All of these nations are hoping that their diplomatic attacks on China’s weak legal position will succeed. If not they are preparing to oppose any Chinese military moves and, at the very least, delay the Chinese long enough for the Americans to intervene.

The growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and adjacent waters is based, according to the Chinese, on their interpretations of history. The Chinese claim just about every uninhabited islet and reef in the region, despite older and more substantial (recognized by international agreements) claims by nations that are closer to the disputed areas. China has ordered its scholars to dig up any historical evidence for early Chinese presence on rocks, reefs and uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. What the Chinese historians have come up with is often vague, hearsay or subject to wide interpretation. In effect, China wants to reverse centuries of recent claims and practices to justify its aggression in the South China Sea. This Chinese effort has one major flaw; it ignores the fact that for thousands of year the Chinese imperial government (which lasted until 1910) disregarded seaward expansion or exploration. The current Chinese government has ordered this history rewritten and reinterpreted and has made it clear that all contradictory opinions by foreign scholars are false. Meanwhile tangible Chinese pressure comes mainly in the form of intimidation by their growing fleet of warships, naval aviation and patrol boats. Actual force (usually bumping into “trespassing” fishing boats or other commercial ships) is usually done by Chinese non-military ships, under orders from nearby Chinese warships or warplanes. New tactics and procedures have to be worked out to counter these Chinese methods.

In the last few months Filipino fishermen report increased Chinese patrol activity within the Philippines EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast) in the South China Sea. Filipinos have been fishing reefs and other shallow waters within the EEZ for centuries, long before there was a Philippine state and without interference from Chinese fishermen who occasionally showed up. That’s because fishing boats with refrigeration, a 20th century invention, only recently made it possible for Chinese fishermen to scour the entire South China Sea for fish to catch, refrigerate and carry back to China. Filipino fishermen also report China constructing concrete structures on some of these reefs, apparently to make possible the establishment of military bases. China says this is within their rights and no one is trying to stop them with force. The victims of all this aggression are waiting on the United States to take the lead in confronting China. The U.S. has declined so far. The Philippines regularly protests the growing number of Chinese warships and coast guard vessels making “sovereignty patrols" within the Filipino EEZ. China rejects such complaints as without merit because China owns the South China Sea and to the Chinese that is settled law.

Meanwhile the U.S. State Department released a study of the Chinese claims in December 2014 that pointed out and agreed with the numerous legal and historical flaws and concluded that the Chinese had no case. The Americans did not say what they would do if China simply ignored rulings against it by international courts. At this point China appears determined to gradually increase its military control over the South China Sea until it can assert that it is most definitely part of China, is defended by the Chinese security forces and all foreigners must obey Chinese rules or stay out of the South China Sea.

The Philippines Navy recently received from Italy four more AW109 helicopters. These are being assembled and will then be tested and then enter service. Three AW109s were received in December. In October the air force ordered eight Anglo-Italian AW109s as well. The navy ordered three AW109s for its larger warships in early 2014. The AW109 is a three ton helicopter that can carry eight people and is also manufactured under license by China.

January 5, 2015:  In the south (Maguindanao province) at least twenty BIFF rebels were killed during a raid on one of their major camps. The army combined the ground assault with artillery, catching the Islamic terrorists by surprise and as a result there were no army casualties .  Several hundred residents of the camp fled as the artillery attack began, dragging their dead and wounded with them. The camp was built to support nearly 500 people and was used to train new recruits. The loss of this camp is a major defeat because this facility was used to replace the heavy losses BIFF has suffered in the last two years. BIFF is a breakaway faction of MILF that refuses to accept the March 2014 peace deal negotiated by MILF . BIFF tried to keep nearby civilians quiet by threatening them with violent reprisals if tips were sent to the army or police. The security forces did not discuss how they found this camp.

January 4, 2015: Off the north (Quezon) coast fishermen found a UAV floating in the water. They hauled it back and at first the media pronounced it an American reconnaissance UAV but more knowledgeable people quickly recognized it as a Chukar target drone. This has happened before, in early 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 in late 2012 off Guam. The drone was found off the coast by Filipino fishermen, who hauled it back to a beach. A Filipino naval officer eventually showed up and recognized the UAV as a BQM-74E Chukar III target drone. This jet powered target drone has a max range of 600 kilometers and sometimes the operator loses control and often the Chukars run out of fuel, go into the water out of sight of the ships and are later found. The one found in 2013 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 3, 2015: The NPA declared a 13 day truce in the south (Surigao del Norte province) to facilitate the release of three policemen the leftist rebels seized in November 2014.

In the south (Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces) BIFF Islamic terrorists attacked two army bases, killing one soldier and wounding three.

January 2, 2015: In the south (Basilan) soldiers, acting on a tip, stopped a government vehicle and searched it, finding a 5 kg (11 pound) bomb that was built to inflict maximum casualties. The two men driving the vehicles were taken in for questioning.  

January 1, 2015: The government believes that the Chinese effort to build military facilities on the disputed Johnson South (Chigua) Reef and several other reefs are about half done and will be completed in 2015. China will not admit that it is building up these reefs (by dredging up sand) and insists that they are merely trying to rebuild a reef that has been damaged by storms. This is not the sort of thing China does. Building bases on reefs, on the other hand, is something the Chinese do frequently in the South China Sea. The Chinese “reclamation” project on Johnson South looks more like a new island than a restored reef, complete with a new airstrip and lots of buildings. The reef is claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Until 1978 it was occupied by Vietnam but in that year China took it by force, killing 70 Vietnamese (and sinking two ships) in the process.  The Philippines accuses China of violating a 2002 agreement not to expand existing islets or reefs and build bases there. Not only is China ignoring that agreement on Johnson South, but also on Mabini, Calderon and Gaven reefs. These bases often include air strips long enough to handle jet fighters. Some of these new bases are within the Filipino EEZ which makes the Chinese bases illegal under international law, laws that China has agreed to abide by in the past but now insists are meaningless in the South China Sea.

December 31, 2014: In the south (North Cotabato) a bomb went off in a market, killing one person and wounding 36. This was seen as the work of the Moslem BIFF rebels.

December 29, 2014: In the south (Compostela Valley province) NPA rebels ambushed and killed two soldiers and a local self-defense volunteer.

December 25, 2014: The NPA agreed to resume peace talks with the government in 2015. This may not happen because of continuing disputes within the NPA, especially between those fighting in the Philippines and leaders and supporters outside the Philippines (largely in Europe where leftist rebels and terrorists still have some popular support).

December 21, 2014: In the south the NPA released two soldiers it had captured on the 2nd. The leftist rebels also agreed to release nine more people that had taken during 2013 in Surigao del Sur and Surigao del Norte provinces.

December 18, 2014: In the south (Sulu) a major military sweep of areas where Abu Sayyaf frequently operates uncovered three small camps used by Islamic terrorists about to carry out an attack. One of these camps contained a bomb, ready to be emplaced somewhere.

 

 

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