The government has decided to defy Chinese threats and proceed with oil exploration off Reed Bank, which is
148 kilometers west of the Philippines (Palawan Island) and well within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) that extends 360 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. Most countries in the region, except Japan, which would rather not dwell on this, note that this was how Japan behaved before World War II.
Historically China has a weak claim because for centuries powerful Chinese empires ignored expansion into the South China Sea or any islands far from their shores. Official U.S. policy is to back international law and try getting everyone to calm down and be less provocative. American P-3C maritime patrol aircraft regularly fly over islands claimed by China and photograph Chinese installations and naval activities. This data is shared with the Philippines and perhaps others. China is the biggest offender in the Spratly Island disputes and shows no sign of slowing, or backing, down. Now China is warning the world that it is ready to escalate but is afraid that the world will call their bluff. The Philippines may be militarily weak, but has powerful allies and international law on their side. China used force to halt Vietnam and Malaysia from doing oil exploration within their EEZ zones but near areas claimed by China.
In mid-2020 the Americans took a stronger stand against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is the Chinese campaign of bullying to control these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets you, at best 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOP (freedom of navigation operations) with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission.
The FONOPS will continue, and probably become more frequent. More importantly the U.S. will now actively oppose all illegal Chinese claims that the 2016 court ruling agreed were invalid and not legally enforceable by China. The U.S. has already increased aerial reconnaissance over the South China Sea, which not only monitors what the Chinese are doing but also documents ongoing Chinese violations of international law.
Before this change in American policy China was confident it could bully the nations bordering the South China Sea that were suffering from the Chinese aggression. That bullying will be more difficult if the victims can call on the Americans for backup. Japan is now more confident in continuing its support for the South China Sea victims.
In light of the American pledge of support the Philippines is organizing CAAS (Cafgu Active Auxiliary Service), a naval militia meant confront the existing Chinese one. CAAS will not be as large as the Chinese militia but it will be large enough to confront and block some Chinese militia efforts. China could escalate and use force but that would be very risky with American naval and air forces in the vicinity.
The Chinese naval militia has existed since the 1950s but never used this aggressively. 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. In the last five years 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.
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. According to international law, 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.
Filipinos feel very safe, according to the latest Gallup Global Law and Order survey. The safest country was nearby Singapore with a rating of 97. The Philippines had a rating of 84, as did Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. rating was 85. Afghanistan was the least safe, at 43. The annual in-person surveys were conducted in late 2019. A representative sample of the population was asked how safe they felt, how much confidence they had in local police and if they had a been a victim of crime in the last 12 months. The covid19 quarantines that went into effect during early 2020 reduced the crime rates in the Philippines 47 percent, and other nations had similar reductions so the 2020 rankings should be the same.
President Duterte is considered responsible for the increased feeling of safety. In 2015 the Philippines rating was 76 while the highest rating was 89, for Singapore. The lowest was 40 for Liberia. Duterte
was elected in 2016 because his previous experience as a big city major showed that he might actually be able to carry out his campaign promises to reduce corruption and drug related crime. According to recent polls Duterte still has the highest approval and trust ratings of any Filipino president, especially this late in his term of office. Many other Filipino presidents got elected on the basis of promises they could not or would not keep. After two or three years such failure to perform was reflected in approval polls. Duterte used vigilante tactics to reduce the ability of drug gangs to terrorize the areas where they operated and openly bribe police and other officials. This is what most Filipinos disliked most about the illegal drugs, in addition to children or kin turning themselves into anti-social addicts. After four years most Filipinos still rate Duterte as effective and able to deliver on campaign promises. This was less true with the other campaign promise; to reduce corruption. The high levels of corruption make it easier for drug gangs to operate and Duterte went after anyone found to be corrupt for whatever reason. This included longtime friends and political allies as well as senior police commanders. The success of these tactics showed up in the latest international corruption surveys. In Southeast Asia the Philippines has the most problems with corruption and Duterte demonstrated that the Filipino situation was not hopeless. Despite the progress against corruption, there proved to be a lot more of it than generally thought. Making a major dent in corruption is more difficult that reducing violent crime and making people feel safer.
November 3, 2020:
In the south (Sulu province) troops caught Mannor Sawadjaan, a wanted Abu Sayyaf leader and six of his followers leaving Sulare Island on a speedboat at 1 AM. Air force and navy forces caught up with the bought and after a 25-minute gun battle killed all seven Islamic terrorists. Sawadjaan was responsible for many of the recent Abu Sayyaf kidnapping on land and at sea. Sawadjaan was located using electronic and aerial surveillance. The military has received sensors that can do that sort of thing and it has made life difficult for Abu Sayyaf’s tactic of covertly moving between the many small islands in Sulu province, usually at night via a fast boat.
October 29, 2020: In the south (Basilan) troops caught up with an Abu Sayyaf mid-level leader called Botak. The Islamic terrorist refused to surrender and was killed after a five-minute gun battle. Botak was riding a motorcycle by himself along a rural road when caught. This interception may have been the result of a tip from a local civilian. More and more locals see Abu Sayyaf as a liability, not a bunch of Islamic Robin Hoods.
October 27, 2020: The Israeli candidate (Sabrah), won the competition to supply the Filipino army with $200 million worth of light tanks. The Israeli firm (Elbit) will supply 18 tanks (8 tracked and 10 wheeled) plus two support vehicles. Elbit is also supplying 28 6x6 wheeled armored vehicles for $47 million.
October 18, 2020: In the south (Jolo island) eleven NPA deserters turned themselves in. The NPA men were encouraged by the amnesty and rehabilitation program the government set up and a growing number of NPA men desert via the amnesty program rather than just going home and hoping NPA retaliation does not catchup and kill them. That happens less often now because there are so many deserters and fewer NPA assassins.
October 1, 2020:
In the south (Maguindanao province) troops searching a remote area found an unoccupied NPA camp. The camp appeared to house about fifty personnel and some weapons and equipment were found, including some locally made mines and bombs. NPA strength has been shrinking over the last few years as the leftist rebels incur more losses due to combat and desertion and have more trouble finding new recruits.