Philippines: Crouching China Hidden Opportunities

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June 8, 2016: After several violent incidents in March the Chinese Navy appears to have halted its harassment of Filipino fishing boats in the South China Sea. There was apparently no Chinese harassment during May. At the same time China has been increasing its media and diplomatic efforts to convince the world that Chinese claims to the South China Sea are valid and not worth opposing. That is not working either. Filipino fishermen got a lot of favorable media attention for recent violent incidents near Scarborough Shoal where Filipino boats were violently forced from their traditional fishing areas by Chinese warships on March 5th and 6th. This was not an isolated incident, even for Scarborough Shoal. In 2015 China left buoys at Scarborough Shoal to warn non-Chinese ships to stay away but Filipino fishermen not only ignored the warning but towed the buoys back home and turned them over to police. In response Chinese coast guard ships visited Scarborough Shoal more frequently and apparently with orders to force foreign fishing boats they encountered away from the area. China was unable to spin all this in their favor. Scarborough Shoal is 220 kilometers from one of the main Filipino islands (Palawan) and 650 kilometers from Chinese territory (Hainan Island) and according to international law it is Filipino. The Chinese coast guard has a reputation for ignoring international law and other illegal activity by Chinese ships. It appears that China encourages its coast guard to do whatever they can get away with to drive foreign fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds that are now claimed by China. It is believed that China is preparing to create an artificial island at Scarborough Shoal and station military personnel there. In preparation for that it only wants Chinese fishing boats in the area.

In April China apparently concluded that this policy was counterproductive and generating too much negative media attention. The Chinese are also waiting to see what newly elected president Duterte would do. The Chinese are still waiting and it doesn’t look good for them. Although Duterte is known to be pragmatic and said he was open to fresh ideas when it came to relations with China, no major shifts in Filipino foreign policy appear to be in the works. Duterte has said he will follow an independent policy with regard Chinese aggression but is not cancelling previous deals that have American and other friendly nations sending more armed forces to the Philippines to help their Filipino counterparts and get in the way of Chinese aggression. China also has to be careful because Duterte is apparently incorruptible so their usual “how much do you want” tactics would probably backfire with Duterte who is willing to consider other options in the South China Sea as long as they are legal and do not harm Filipino interests. That is not good news for the Chinese.

The United States recently told China that any efforts to build an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal and install a military base would be resisted with more than diplomatic protests. Another reason for the lack of Chinese pushback is China is the deliberations of the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding Filipino accusations that China is acting illegally with its claims in the South China Sea. The court is supposed to make a ruling this month. Britain and other Western nations have already announced their belief that the Court of Arbitration ruling would be binding and they would enforce any penalties levied. China cannot ignore that the way it is trying to ignore the court deliberations. The Philippines, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea all openly oppose the Chinese claims. Other nations in the area (Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and India) held back for a while but are now also in open opposition. China is now offering to hold regular talks with the Philippines over these disputes. The Philippines refuses because it does not consider the situation a dispute but rather a case of unwarranted Chinese aggression.

MILF Matters

Malaysia continues to host negotiations between MILF and the government and president Duterte made it clear as soon as he took power that he was willing to support the MILF peace deal. Duterte expects MILF leaders to keep their gunmen under control and cooperate with new anti-corruption measures. If MILF shows it can keep the peace and address corruption the largely Christian legislature can be persuaded to approve the MILF peace deal signed in 2014. Some MILF factions are hostile to the deal but most Filipino Moslems as well as the Christian majority want peace. The fighting has been going on since 1970 and left over 100,000 dead. The security forces have increasingly had the upper hand and if MILF goes back to war MILF, and the Moslem south, will lose. The May elections also produced a new congress that takes power in early July. MILF expects the new congress to either pass or reject the peace deal by the end of the year. This peace deal, if approved by congress, creates Bangsamoro which is an autonomous Moslem area in the southwest. It was not surprising that this new law would be difficult to get through congress. It was always understood that because of the 2016 elections the treaty would have an opportunity to try getting approval from two different congresses. Although there are a lot of incumbents, the 250 members of the House of Representatives are restricted to nine years (three terms) and the May elections shifted power in Congress. MILF also has to get the approval of most Moslems in the south, which should be a lot easier, even if all of them don’t get all they wanted. The government wanted to get the Bangsamoro laws approved before the 2016 presidential elections so the politicians who handled the successful negotiations would get full credit for the peace deal. The main problem is that too many Christians do not trust the Moslems to remain at peace and curb violence against Christians in the south. While Moslems are the majority in some parts of the south (mainly the southwest that will become Bangsamoro) Christians are the majority in the southern islands that radical Moslems insist should be under Moslem control and all Christians expelled. Even in Bangsamoro Christians are a large minority.

June 7, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga del Norte province) troops found and seized a camp used by what appeared to be a criminal gang that was competing with local NPA rebels. The troops were there because these gangsters were trying to extort money from local construction projects. Many of those living in rural areas where the NPA still operates see the leftist rebels mainly as a threat to the local economy. That’s because the NPA increasingly attacks large businesses in rural areas. This is a way of punishing large companies for not paying "revolutionary taxes" (extortion). This is how NPA finances itself and as a result of these attacks the army has been concentrating their efforts on protecting companies working in areas that need the jobs. NPA activity discourages economic growth in rural areas. This is a subject NPA leadership would rather not talk about because since the 1990s the NPA has lost its voluntary suppliers of cash and material in rural areas. This is because most people had lost faith in the communist ideology NPA preaches. So now NPA resorts to extortion and theft to survive. This made the NPA even more unpopular. While the NPA still considers itself a leftist revolutionary operation, most of the people they say they are fighting for see the NPA as bandits. The army fears that, like other rebel organizations (particularly MILF) the NPA is now breaking apart into factions. In this case it appears one faction has dropped the “rebel with a cause” image NPA has long cultivated and is just in it for the money. This is how Abu Sayyaf got started. Eventually the leaders of that group of ex-MILF gunmen decided that pretending to be the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise might help.

June 5, 2016: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) NPA rebels ambushed a police vehicle, killing one policeman and wounding two others. Other policemen fired on the ambushers who soon fled.

June 3, 2016: The head of the national police and newly elected president Duterte both agreed that police would continue looking for a police commander NPA rebels kidnapped on May 29th. NPA later revealed that the police commander was involved in drug trafficking. Duterte is very eager to find and dismiss corrupt police and had earlier said the police should not risk their lives searching for corrupt cops who have been kidnapped. Duterte clarified his position by agreeing that until the kidnapped commander is convicted of corruption every effort should be made to rescue him. Meanwhile a growing number of police are being subjected to random drug testing and found to be users and often corrupt as well.

June 1, 2016: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) nearly a week of fighting with an Islamic terrorist group (Maute) left four soldiers and at least 54 Islamic terrorists dead. The army also captured the main Maute camp and identified at least one of their key leaders among the dead. Maute was founded in 2013 by dissident MILF members who did not want peace with the government and preferred to keep fighting. By 2015 Maute had made little progress and decided to proclaim itself part of ISIL. After that Maute became more violent and threatening. At the start of the year they had nearly 200 members. Maute has suffered heavy losses this year in part because MILF got fed up with them and quietly helped the security forces with information on exactly who and where Maute was. Meanwhile Maute found that that behaving like ISIL did not help with recruiting and fundraising but just brought more pressure on them. An army offensive in February killed at least 24 Maute men (and possibly over 40). There are now believed to be fewer than a hundred Maute members and the army and MILF are continuing to hunt them down.

May 30, 2016: Newly elected president Duterte officially took power.

May 29, 2016: In the south (Davao Oriental province) about 40 NPA rebels attacked a police station and kidnapped the local chief of police chief (Arnold Ongachen) and two women (one a police officer the other a civilian).

May 24, 2016: In the south (Sulu province) troops found and captured an Abu Sayyaf camp after a 45 minute gun battle. The Abu Sayyaf men fighting the troops were apparently the rear guard, to delay pursuit of a larger number of Abu Sayyaf fleeing the camp. Much equipment and some weapons were left behind. The camp was built to accommodate over a hundred people and had been operational for some time. The troops were looking for kidnap victims Abu Sayyaf was holding and it was unclear if any were in this camp. Former Abu Sayyaf hostages report that they were sometimes moved unexpectedly because troops were approaching.

May 19, 2016: In the south (Zamboanga City) Abu Sayyaf released a Filipino man it had kidnapped in March. It is unclear if a ransom was paid. Abu Sayyaf demands lower ransoms (often only a few thousand dollars) for Filipino captives. Paying any amount of ransom to Islamic terrorists is illegal in the Philippines. The government does not always prosecute those who pay small ransoms unless it becomes a major news story.

May 18, 2016: In the south (Jolo Island) seven soldiers were wounded when someone (apparently a member of Abu Sayyaf) threw a grenade at their truck. Elsewhere in the south (Davao del Norte province) NPA rebels clashed with solders on several occasions, leaving one soldier and three rebels dead.

May 16, 2016: Abu Sayyaf released a video in which they demanded that a $12.9 million ransom be paid by June 13th otherwise they would murder one of the two foreign hostages (a Canadian and a Norwegian) they still held. The video showed the two remaining hostages. Abu Sayyaf also demanded that the government call off its search for the hostages. The government refused to pay or to halt the search. The Philippines forbids the payment of ransoms to Abu Sayyaf, especially multi-million dollar ones (demanded for foreigners) because that kind of money enables the Islamic terrorist group to survive and even expand and kill more people.

On April 25th Abu Sayyaf beheaded a Canadian hostage because their demand for a six million dollar ransom were not met. The government responded by reminding everyone that it was illegal to pay ransoms and that the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf killers and the remaining hostages would intensify.

 

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