President Duterte recently returned from China where he met with the Chinese leader and both agreed to work out their disputes in the South China Sea through negotiation. This may not amount to much. The Chinese take the long view and see negotiations and even concessions as tolerable digressions as they relentlessly advance towards their goal. Duterte is aware of this and has already dropped his “China wants to be a friend” approach and warned China that a military response from the Philippines was now possible. Duterte admits that this would be suicidal for the Filipino forces involved but it would trigger the mutual defense treaty with the United States. Short of that, China was warned that their ships surrounding Pagasa Island are there illegally. Duterte has always admitted that the Philippines itself has not got the military resources to oppose Chinese aggression with any degree of success.
Filipino legislators are complaining that their government seems unable to do anything about the Chinese threat. Filipino and American diplomatic officials are still trying to decide what constitutes an “attack” that would trigger the mutual defense treaty. The government does admit that the United States is the only “military” ally the Philippines has. The Chinese do not want to fight the Americans. That’s not what Chinese propaganda says but within the Chinese government, there is agreement that war with the United States would be disastrous, at least until China is the top military superpower in the world. China does not expect that to happen until the 2030s. So for the moment China talks tough and tries to buy its way out of any embarrassing confrontations with the United States. The current effort with the Philippines is all about how much China has to pay to get the Filipinos to fold.
China is well aware of that American link and as is their custom the Chinese are avoiding any direct confrontations that risk leading to violence. This is a potentially dangerous game but so far the Chinese have been successful at it. Until the Americans agree that the Chinese aggression has triggered the mutual defense treaty the Philippines has no option other than trying to be friendly with China while documenting the growing acts of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. The current American government has demonstrated a degree of resolve and aggressiveness that China is not used to. Fortunately, the Americans hold presidential elections every four years and China is looking forward to possibly getting a more compliant American leader in 2020. If not then there is always 2024.
The Filipino government has also decided to declare the disputed (with China) Pagasa Islands and the nearby Eastern Kalayaan islands (actually a group of islets and reefs the Philippines claimed in the late 1940s) as MPA (marine protected areas). According to maritime law (and recently affirmed by an international tribunal) these areas, which are within 200 kilometers of the Philippines (Palawan Island), are well within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone, waters 380 kilometers from the coast). Although the EEZ is recognized by international law (and a treaty that China signed and uses to defend waters off its own coast) China says that does not apply here because all the islets in the South China Sea belong to China and there is no room for negotiation on that point. As an MPA the Philippines can declare China in violation of still more international agreements. An MPA is the sort of thing that does not stop China but it does annoy them a great deal and increases international opposition to Chinese efforts to take control of the entire South China Sea.
China created the current crisis over who controls Pagasa Island and nearby sandbars. The Chinese have put a record number of ships around the island, most of them Chinese fishing boats pretending to be fishing but in reality members of the Chinese naval militia which is being used in unprecedented numbers here. China insists it has not ordered its naval militia fishing boats to physically block Filipino commercial or military ship from getting to Pagasa. But it has become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening to cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. Filipinos have lived on the island since 1956 and there has been a Filipino military presence there since 1970.
Many Chinese fishing ships are part of an unofficial but organized and paid naval militia. The Chinese maintain this force with subsidies (for building new fishing boats) and assurances that the navy will assist Chinese fishermen in gaining access to foreign fishing areas and exclusive use of fishing grounds in international waters. The fishing boats are the most numerous and aggressive component of this militia. Overall the militia appears to consist of several hundred fishing and coastal cargo vessels. There are a hundred or so larger civilian ships, mostly ocean-going fishing trawlers, as well. The naval militia openly functions as a government supported organization and has headquarters in southern China. Any foreign criticism of the Chinese naval militia elicits only denials from the Chinese government. The best thing about the naval militia is that it is not officially part of the military but will most definitely follow orders.
April 27, 2019: China has offered the Philippines $12.2 billion worth of investments and trade agreements. The two nations signed 19 trade agreements that, if carried out, are supposed to create 21,000 new jobs in the Philippines. There is a catch to all this; China expects some unwritten diplomatic concessions as well. China has already made deals like this with the Philippines but when the Filipinos refused to back off in the South China Sea those earlier investments and such never showed up. The Philippines is being given another chance to be bought and prove that they will stay bought. Opinion polls show that most Filipinos do not trust the Chinese and are unwilling to give up Filipino territory in the South China Sea.
President Duterte has been in China, along with some of the key diplomatic and economic officials, to make final arrangements on these deals. Duterte has also told the Chinese that he knows how this works and that the Chinese should not get their hopes up.
April 23, 2019: In central Philippines (Samar Island), soldiers pursed NPA rebels who had clashed with troops the night before, leaving six soldiers dead and six wounded. Army reinforcements arrived and drove off the NPA forces and then proceeded to track them. The leftist rebels troops their dead and wounded with them which will slow the rebel down until the dead, and then the wounded, are left behind.
April 17, 2019: In the south (Negros Occidental province), an army patrol clashed briefly with a dozen NPA rebels leaving three rebels dead and one soldier wounded. The leftist rebels fled in several directions, leaving their dead and some weapons and equipment behind.
April 15, 2019: In the north (outside Manila), police traced down Abuhair Kullim Indal, a senior Abu Sayyaf official who was trying to establish a hideout that was safer than the constant military pressure down south where most Abu Sayyaf members are. Indal was armed with a hand grenade when he was arrested and police prevented the grenade from being used. Indal gave up useful information when interrogated.
April 13, 2019: The government revealed the DNA tests had confirmed that on March 11, in Lanao del Sur province soldiers had indeed killed Abu Dar, the local ISIL leader, as well as at least a dozen of his followers. DNA tests had been ordered to confirm the identity. The death of Abu Dar it is very bad news for ISIL. The local ISIL franchise consists of personnel from the Maute Group, BIFF and Abu Sayyaf. This Filipino branch is still 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 that is being used, without much success, to entice new recruits. What discourages new recruits is the fact that most of the ISIL men who went off to capture Marawi in 2017 died there. In addition, the army is still very active in the areas where ISIL is seeking recruits. The March 11 clash was the result of tips from local civilians. Many of the ISIL dead were in pieces because the army called in airstrikes to hit the fleeing Islamic terrorists.
April 12, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), troops clashed with over a hundred Abu Sayyaf gunman in several encounters that left at least twelve of the Islamic terrorists dead and even more wounded. Five soldiers were badly wounded and several other less so and these were treated locally while the others were taken to a hospital. The Abu Sayyaf force spilt up and fled and eventually broke contact with the troops.
April 11, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), troops clashed with some Abu Sayyaf gunmen, killing one of them. Two soldiers were wounded.
Elsewhere in the area (Basilan), another clash with Abu Sayyaf left one soldier and two local militiamen dead.
April 8, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), troops clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen, killing two of the Islamic terrorists. Three soldiers were wounded. The two dead Islamic terrorists turned out to be wanted men. One had been involved in the January attack on a cathedral that left 20 Christians dead. The other dead man was the nephew of the Abu Sayyaf leaders.
April 5, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), troops clashed with some 80 Abu Sayyaf gunmen. During a 30 minute battle four Islamic terrorists were killed and nine wounded. The army lost three dead and 13 wounded.
Elsewhere in Sulu province, two Indonesian hostages escaped from their Abu Sayyaf captors by getting to a beach and swimming away from the small island where they were being held. One of the Indonesians was later rescued at sea but the other escapee had drowned.
April 4, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), marines clashed with Abu Sayyaf gunmen who were guarding a Malaysian hostage that was holding for ransom. During the fighting, the Malaysian hostage broke free and fled. Abu Sayyaf gunmen fired at him and hit him several times. Marines later found the wounded Malaysian and got him to a hospital. But the Malaysian man died on the 9th from his many wounded. Abu Sayyaf only had a few hostages left and troops are continuing to seek them out and free them.