The government is trying to be more realistic on the Chinese effort to take possession of the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam have the most to lose but all other Western Pacific countries feel threatened by growing Chinese naval power and aggressiveness. These nations are coming together in an anti-China coalition that may (if the Americans take an active role) persuade China to back down and play by the international rules it agreed to in the past.
So far China is building bases and, according to one Filipino official, only “controls” seven percent of the South China Sea. China is not yet trying to enforce its claims although it is increasingly vocal about other nations for “violating Chinese territorial waters.” This includes non-military force to prevent non-Chinese (especially Filipino) fishing boats from operating in traditional (and legally Filipino) fishing grounds. President Duterte sought to negotiate a deal with China that would compensate the Philippines for lost access to their fishing areas. That was blocked by Filipinos invoking the constitution and its prohibitions against officials negotiating away those rights without assent of the people (the national legislature).
Chinese claims have no standing when it comes to international law and agreements. Yet China is slowly seeking control over the entire South China Sea and is willing to spend as much time as it requires to achieve recognition as the undisputed owner of the South China Sea. This is the ancient “death of a thousand cuts” strategy China has used for centuries and is being blatantly applied, for the first time, on vast maritime areas. The fishing resources alone are enormously valuable and, based on past Chinese performance, likely to be exploited to the point where there are not many fish left to catch. There are also offshore oil and gas and much else on the bottom of the shallow waters of the South China Sea. Initially, the Philippines tried to accommodate China but the feeling, both popular and among the leadership, is that the Chinese threat will not be tempered by accommodation. China wants it all and the only question now is whether China will risk war over their territorial claims.
The Indonesian Connection
Indonesian police revealed that their local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) operation had recruited an Indonesian couple to carry out the January suicide bombing of a cathedral in the south that left twenty dead. The Indonesian ISIL group continues to recruit locals for attacks elsewhere in the region. While Indonesia has the largest Moslem population in the region, it has not been hospitable to the hardcore form of Islam favored by al Qaeda and ISIL (and Islamic terrorists in general). Indonesian counter-terror efforts are among the most effective in the region and most Indonesian Islamic terrorists find it more effective, and safer, to go outside Indonesia to act on their homicidal impulses. Syria and Iraq used to be favorite destinations but that is no longer the case. Afghanistan is now questionable and more Indonesian Islamic terrorists are showing up in other Southeast Asian nations.
Indonesian police share information on local Islamic terrorists they capture and interrogate. These prisoners are often willing to talk about overseas operations and the fact the Indonesian ISIL branch has links with ISIL groups in the Philippines, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Filipino police believe that at least seven foreign Islamic terrorists are currently present down south in Moslem majority Sulu, Basilan and Maguindanao provinces. These foreigners tend to provide skills that locals lack. This includes bomb building, planning attacks and how best to recruit and retain new members, including short time hires like suicide bombers.
July 23, 2019: The government has contracted a commercial space satellite firm to provide the Philippines with 24/7 coverage of the South China Sea areas disputed the Philippines and China. The surveillance would begin in September. This is intended to document Chinese bad behavior in these disputed areas.
July 18, 2019: In the south (Negros Oriental), four policemen were ambushed and killed, apparently by NPA gunmen. The four police were intelligence specialists collecting intel on local NPA operations. The killers took the policemen’s weapons and motorcycles.
July 17, 2019: In the south (North Cotabato province), two soldiers were ambushed and killed by NPA gunmen. The two soldiers were out visiting local villagers to check on the local situation.
A shipyard in France launched the first of four 94 meter OPVs (offshore patrol vessels) for the Philippines Coast Guard. This first one will arrive in the Philippines by December and provide the coast guard with a vessel that can better patrol areas far from shore on a regular basis.
July 15, 2019: In the south (Sulu province) Arod Wahing, a veteran Abu Sayyaf member, was cornered and killed after he refused to surrender and opened fire. Two of his associates were arrested. Wahing was wanted for his involvement in the kidnapping of three foreigners (two Germans and one Swiss).
July 8, 2019: President Duterte continues to enjoy high approval ratings. The latest poll shows 68 percent approval, which is high for a president in office for three years. Duterte promised to make people safer while also reducing corruption. He did so and continues to concentrate on what he got elected to do. Yet his approval ratings do decline as they do for every president. In late 2018 his approval was 78 percent. That was down from 84 percent shortly after he took office in 2016. Approval peaked at 85 percent in late 2016 and fell to 75 percent in early 2018 before reaching its current low. There are many foreign critics of the Duterte war on drugs but for the people most affected by it, there is approval. People feel safer and more confident about their future. The national crime rate is 3.3 percent less than a year ago and is apparently continuing to decline.
June 28, 2019: In the south (Sulu province) two suicide bombers attacked an army camp, killing three soldiers. What was unusual about this attack was that one of the suicide bombers was Filipino. This was the first time a Filipino was used as a suicide bomber and the local ISIL group claimed credit for the attack.