Moslem unrest in the south continues to decline, mainly because the
BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) was approved by voting earlier in 2019 and the interim leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, continues to implement the disarmament and demobilization of the MILF armed forces. Ebrahim will be in charge until elections are held in 2022 and by then the MILF armed forces are supposed to be gone. Since February, armed members of MILF have been responsible for local security although the Filipino armed forces still handles most of the counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), Abu Sayyaf and BIFF. Demobilized MILF gunmen will be recruited for BARMM police. BARMM consists of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces, as well as the cities of Marawi, Lamitan, Cotabato and 63 villages of North Cotabato province. The city of Cotabato will be the capital.
The Islamic terror groups down south, particularly ISIL, are battered and depleted but still active. ISIL rebuilding efforts are hampered by the continued military patrols seeking the dwindling number of camps these groups use for training and building bombs and other devices. Within ISIL the Philippines is no longer a prime destination of ISIL specialists seeking refuge. The areas where Islamic terrorists could set up camps are now part of BARMM and increasingly monitored by former MILF members who are now policemen. Abu Sayyaf is no longer very active as pirates or kidnappers because avoiding the security forces has become a full time job.
The leftist NPA is still present and active in the south but these rebels are operating more like gangsters than political operatives. This has led to fewer new recruits while more of its younger, idealistic, members either surrender to the government or simply walk away. With the threat from Moslem separatists, Islamic terrorists and leftist rebels much diminished the major threat remains Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China continues trying to enforce its illegal claims on all the smaller (and largely uninhabited) South China Sea islands. One of the major victims, the Philippines, tried being more realistic about resisting the Chinese effort to take possession of the South China Sea. That did not work out and the Filipino government recently concluded that China was not willing to negotiate when it came to its South China Sea claims. While there is a growing anti-China alliance in the region, the combined military might of this coalition depends on how much the United States is willing to push back.
The Chinese effort to defend its claims is massive. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically. Of all the nations involved with this Chinese aggression, the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. But according to international law (which China agrees with, at least officially), the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers. But now China claims, not recognized by any international law or treaty, claims most of the South China Sea and expands the Chinese EEZ to 3.8 million square kilometers, mostly at the expense of the Philippines. Vietnam also suffers major losses and other nations like Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea are threatened to a lesser extent. The Chinese claims are not confined to the South China Sea but aim to expand Chinese control to much of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. As a result India, Singapore and Malaysia feel threatened as well.
These threatened 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 strictly 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 of the Philippines 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 existing 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 is also offshore oil and gas and much else on the bottom of the shallow waters of the South China Sea. So far the Chinese threat has proved immune to accommodation. China wants it all and the only question now is will China risk war over their territorial claims.
The Americans have gone to war with China, but not militarily. The Americans, and many other Chinese trading partners, have been accumulating grievances because of Chinese economic crimes and rampant (and ongoing) espionage efforts. China steals patent protected property as well as trade secrets (unpatented knowledge that was created at great expense.) China is currently caught between the after-effects of economic misbehavior inside China and American demands to reform and restitution. The U.S. is imposing tariffs and other trade penalties on China and the Chinese leadership is feeling the heat and unable, so far, to come up with an adequate defense.
September 16, 2019: In the capital, police arrested 324 Chinese, many of them in the country illegally, and charged them with participating in a large Internet-based crime operation. Three days ago another 277 Chinese were arrested on similar charges. A decade ago the Philippines became a hotspot for computer hacking groups, and for nearly a decade the computer crime gangs were able to survive by bribing the right officials. Only when the cybercrime involved Islamic terrorism did the bribes not always work. Then the government legalized online gambling operations in 2016, although Filipinos are forbidden to play. There was also an effort to eliminate a lot of the bribery that often caused things like online gambling to become more of a problem than an economic benefit. This time around the Filipino police have been able to act and corruption and criminal activity associated with it is more likely to result in lots of arrests and prosecutions. Many of these recent arrests were the result of information provided by the American FBI, which had been investigating international computer and phone fraud and the hackers behind it. China has also provided information about Internet-based criminals preying on individuals and businesses in China.
September 10, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), soldiers clashed with about 40 Abu Sayyaf gunmen near an Abu Sayyaf camp, killing one man after a 20 minute gun battle. The dead Abu Sayyaf member turned out to be a known Abu Sayyaf operative and other information found in the nearby camp indicated he had volunteered for a planned suicide bombing operation. Two soldiers were wounded during all this.
September 8, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), a female suicide bomber tried to attack an army checkpoint. The troops fired on the obvious threat and the bomber died when she detonated her explosives. ISIL was believed responsible because they are the main, usually only, source of suicide bombing attacks in the Philippines.
September 7, 2019: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province), the BIFF
(Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters)
faction of ISIL planted and detonated a bomb in a parking lot near a marketplace. Eight people were wounded.
BIFF has been under constant heavy attack since September 2018 and only a few dozen members remain active. BIFF was originally formed to oppose BARMM because it was considered insufficient. In the last year, BARMM has proved very popular among Moslems and that meant much less support for groups like BIFF.
A Filipino frigate, the Ramon Alcaraz, arrived in Vietnam for a four day visit. This is the third time a Filipino warship has visited Vietnam, which has become one of several local allies in the effort to oppose Chinese claims to the South China Sea. The Alcaraz is one of
three del Pilar class frigates and entered Filipino service in 2013. These ships are former American Hamilton class Coast Guard cutters. These are 3,200 ton ocean going patrol ships that the Philippines added more weapons to and uses as warships. The del Pilars are receiving new electronics that will improve their search capabilities. These frigates spend most of their time patrolling offshore waters looking for smugglers or Chinese ships seeking to claim Filipino maritime areas and the small islands found there. The navy has managed to update and upgrade is equipment on a small budget by soliciting donations from allies.
August 25, 2019: In the south (Misamis Occidental province), troops clashed with NPA rebels twice, killing one and capturing seven. Two soldiers were wounded and NPA weapons, documents and equipment were seized. The dead man was identified as a known NPA leader.