President Duterte is trying to be realistic in his policy towards China but that seems to be making the situation worse. Duterte points out that China is already occupying the disputed territory in the South China Sea and no one is willing or able to push them out. China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockage of bits of land in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession. Again no one with sufficient military power (like the United States) is willing to confront China over these actions and the Philippines is trying to get clarifications over what exactly the mutual defense treaty the U.S. and Philippines have long had actually covers.
This pragmatism has caused problems because Filipino public opinion favors vigorously opposing these moves while the government does not want to offend the Chinese and endanger the growing number of Chinese economic programs in the Philippines. The government is accused of being bought by the Chinese while the government points out that opposing the Chinese claims in the South China Sea and off the Filipino cost is futile because the Chinese are much more powerful militarily and economically. Yet the public opinion continues to oppose the Chinese, especially since none of the Chinese economic benefits have actually come to pass. This leaves the impression that China thinks so little of Filipinos that it can buy compliance with empty promises and more substantial threats. President Duterte is pressuring China to make good on its economic promises and so far is just getting more assurances that good things are coming. This leads critics of the Duterte approach to point out the Chinese track record of promising much and delivering little in all its diplomatic endeavors.
December 8, 2018: The government has canceled plans to buy Russian helicopters because of the sanctions. Earlier this year Canada also ceased to be a supplier of transport helicopters because many Canadians opposed the way the Filipinos were dealing with their rebels and drug gangs. The Russians were going to replace Canada as the main helicopter supplier. Instead, the new transport helicopters (16 UH-60s) are now being obtained from the United States and ten helicopter gunships (T129s) from Turkey.
December 6, 2018: In the south (Sulu province) Abu Sayyaf released a hostage they had taken in September. It is unclear if a ransom had been paid.
December 5, 2018: In the south, across the Sulu Sea off nearby Malaysia (Sabah) Abu Sayyaf pirates attacked an Indonesian fishing boat near Pegasus Reef. The boat was looted and three crewmen kidnapped to hold for ransom. The pirates apparently headed for a hideout in the Philippines (Sulu province.) Malaysia has reported that its naval and air patrols off the east coast of Sabah have detected and driven off at least ten Abu Sayyaf boats trying to land men in Sabah to seek and kidnap people who would yield a large ransom. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been coordinating their air and naval patrols in the waters between them that are sometimes threatened by Abu Sayyaf boats seeking ships to loot and take hostages from. The Sulu Sea, that separates Sabah from Sulu province in the Philippines, has become particularly active.
In the Philippines, the government refused the NPA offer of a holiday ceasefire because the NPA has violated more agreements than it has complied with in the last few years. Earlier this year it was revealed that the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) has not only abandoned peace talks (as of early 2018) but is trying to revive its military force in the Philippines (the NPA or New People’s Army) with a secret plan to raise money and obtain more weapons and recruits to provide it with the ability to finally carry out the CPP revolution the NPA supports. Captured documents revealed details (including a planned uprising to replace the current government) as well as proof that the revival plan is not working. The plan involves raising more cash (by going after large companies operating in the country side) and obtaining more weapons. The police and army were alerted when details of these plans were uncovered. That made it even more difficult for the NPA revival plan to work. Some NPA factions want a peace deal but they are apparently a minority.
December 4, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province), soldiers, acting on a call from local civilians went to a village where they encountered four armed BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) Islamic terrorists. There was a brief gun battle that left all four BIFF men dead. Villagers reported that the four planned to raise the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) flag in the village and declare the place under ISIL control. BIFF the organization survived a three-month effort (that ended in early September) to eliminate their presence in Mindanao (where most BIFF members are). Over a hundred BIFF men were known dead and it is not yet known how many died of wounds or deserted. The army has found several BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and have set no end date on the current campaign. The 6th Infantry Division, which is supplying most of the troops, were able to rotate units in and out of the area for months. The object was to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island (including Maguindanao province) and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicate that this was a possibility. But the reality is the BIFF are hardcore and consider themselves a branch of ISIL. BIFF has become a magnet for many Filipino Moslems who are unhappy with the Bangsamoro Moslem autonomy agreement and believe it does not go far enough (ISIL believes that all Filipinos should be Moslems). The four BIFF men found in the village may or may not be part of a larger group and the army is going to guard the village and patrol the surrounding area to look for any BIFF presence.
November 29, 2018: In the south (Agusan del Norte), an NPA landmine killed three soldiers and the lone survivor was then fired on by NPA gunmen.
November 27, 2018: In the south (Northern Samar province), NPA gunmen killed a soldier and wounded another.
Elsewhere in the south (Cebu Province), police cornered a major drug gang leader and four of his subordinates. There was a gun battle but after the gang leader was killed the other four men surrendered. Back in September 69 local police were relieved of duty for involvement in the drug trade. Eight are being prosecuted and the rest transferred with some still under investigation. Replacements were brought in from other areas.
November 24, 2018: The Philippines, Japan, South Korea and other East Asian nations are complaining to China about the increase in illegal Chinese workers showing up in their territory. These illegals come in as tourists or business visitors and stay behind when their visa expires. China is believed to be deliberately tolerating this as part of some espionage effort. In the Philippines, it was worse because corrupt local officials allowed over 100,000 of these Chinese “tourists” to get short-term (3-6 months) work permits so they could staff online gambling operations that had been set up in the Philippines. Most of the online gamblers were in mainland China and few Filipinos spoke Chinese. The issue here was that the gambling operation managers sought to keep their lack of jobs for Filipinos secret.
November 23, 2018: An agreement was signed with China to jointly develop oil and natural gas deposits found in what is technically Filipino territory. China has threatened military action against Filipino moves to develop these deposits by themselves. The same aggressive tactics were used against Vietnam. China and the Philippines also signed 28 other economic agreements, none of them particularly binding on China. In 2016 China signed a similar collection of investment deals which involved China putting $24 billion worth of economic investments into the Philippines. So far only $62 million has arrived, for an irrigation project. That’s less than a one-quarter of one percent. Most Filipinos are not impressed, at least not in a positive fashion.
November 21, 2018: In the north (near Bataan), the military conducted a training exercise where three of its new MPAC 35 ton coastal patrol boats demonstrated the use of their Israeli Spike ER missile systems. These missiles have a range of 8 kilometers and are “fire and forget.” It’s similar to the U.S. Hellfire missile. This is effective against small craft but not against larger warships.
November 20, 2018: The Philippines agreed to a number of economic deals with China, including allowing China to take the lead exploring for oil and natural gas in Filipino offshore waters. This was not popular with many Filipinos but the government feels it has no other choice in the face of Chinese threats in the South China Sea.
November 18, 2018: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province), police at a checkpoint arrested two Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists who were transporting a bomb for a terror attack in the area.
November 16, 2018: In the south (Negros Oriental), troops confronted a group of armed NPA rebels in a village where they were seeking refuge from the army and police. Local civilians called in the army. The NPA resisted for about 15 minutes until two of them were killed and the rest fled into the forest. The rebels left ammo and supplies behind.
Further south (Sulu province), troops searching an area where Abu Sayyaf is active encountered about 70 of the Islamic terrorists and a battle ensued. Five soldiers were killed and 23 wounded during an hour of fighting. Then the Abu Sayyaf force withdrew, taking their dead and wounded with them. The soldiers were seeking 15 kidnapping hostages Abu Sayyaf had taken from two Indonesian ships in September and may have run into the Abu Sayyaf group holding some of the hostages. Abu Sayyaf frequently changes the location of its few remaining base camps to avoid detection and airstrikes. These movements involve large groups of armed Abu Sayyaf escorting the hostages and vehicles or porters carrying equipment. In this case, it was later discovered that this Abu Sayyaf group contained Hatib Hajan Sawadjan, an Abu Sayyaf leader who was known to be organizing new kidnapping efforts.
November 15, 2018: In the south (Lanao del Sur province), seven members of the Maute Group surrendered and turned in their weapons as well. This gang, one the three components (along with BIFF and Abu Sayyaf) of ISIL in the Philippines, has been trying to recruit and replace heavy losses it took during 2017 when ISIL forces sought to take the city of Marawi. That led to a major ISIL defeat and the loss of most of the senior leadership of all three factions. These three groups did manage to steal a lot of cash from banks in Marawi and Maute is using that to entice new recruits. That is proving difficult considering the large number of Maute Group fighters who went off to Marawi in 2017 and died there. In addition, the army is still very active in the areas where Maute is seeking recruits.
November 12, 2018: In the south (Iloilo province), soldiers encountered a group of armed NPA after responding to calls from local civilians. The NPA fought back for 30 minutes until one was killed and the other nine surrendered. The NPA men were apparently on their way to destroy equipment at a construction site because the company involved refused to meet extortion demands.
November 11, 2018: In the south, across the Sulu Sea in nearby Malaysia (Sabah), local police revealed that in the last two weeks they had conducted several raids that resulted in the arrest of seven Abu Sayyaf members, one of them a notorious “executioner” who admitted beheading people for Abu Sayyaf. The seven Abu Sayyaf men had sneaked into Malaysia after the defeats Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic terrorist groups suffered in late 2017. The seven had assumed false identities and got construction jobs. It was unclear if they were still planning to work for Abu Sayyaf. Earlier this year Malaysia police did encounter several still active Abu Sayyaf in Sabah.