Philippines: Officially Not Amused


February 8, 2021: The government is protesting the new Chinese law that authorizes Chinese warships (coast guard or navy) to open fire on “trespassers”. This came two days after the Filipino foreign minister observed that the new Chinese law was “none of our business.” That may have pleased the Chinese officials the Foreign Ministry has to deal with, but it caused an uproar in the Filipino legislature and the population in general. Having been reminded about who he worked for and why, the Chinese have now been informed that the Philippines is officially not amused.

The Usual Suspects

For the Philippines, the biggest security problem is internal, and that is the crippling corruption that has left the Philippines in last place for the post-World War II economic boom that enriched all East Asian nations except the Philippines and North Korea. The resulting economic weakness made it more difficult to deal with internal as well as external threats. Currently the major external threat is China. The Philippines is not alone in facing this threat but is the weakest member of the regional coalition that has formed to resist Chinese aggression and territorial demands. Internally the Philippines is in much better shape. The major security threat is the drug gangs and all the criminal behavior they make possible. In comparison, other threats are in decline. Counterterrorism efforts over the last decade have reduced the armed opposition from Moslem separatists and Islamic terrorists as well as communist rebels trying to ignore the epic failure of communist governments after the 1980s. The primary Moslem threats are currently three Islamic terrorist groups, all now affiliated with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The largest of these is Abu Sayyaf, which is down to a about two hundred active armed members and key supporters. The remainder is split between two smaller but similar groups; BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) and Maute Group.

Abu Sayyaf has been around since the early 1990s, initially as a radical breakaway fringe group of the larger Moslem separatist MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). At first Abu Sayyaf was more outlaw than Islamic terrorist but gradually changed as it developed more links with Islamic terrorist groups around the region and the world. There were never more than 500 active members of Abu Sayyaf and that number varied depending on how much cash the groups had obtained from extortion or ransoms of locals or foreigners. Another factor was how intense the government effort against them was. That was because Abu Sayyaf also provided sanctuary for foreign Islamic terrorists and that made them a larger threat. Since 2000 Abu Sayyaf has been seen as a major security and Islamic terrorism problem in the south, and from 2015 on the efforts to eliminate the groups increased dramatically. That meant thousands of additional soldiers and marines searching areas where Abu Sayyaf usually established their camps. This effort was aided by obtaining more aircraft and sensors (aerial vidcams and electronic monitoring gear), first from the U.S. troops assisting and later by purchase for use by Filipino forces. When it became too difficult to find valuable kidnap victims, Abu Sayyaf went to sea, attacking ships and taking foreign crews for ransom. This backfired as neighboring nations, especially Indonesia, became active allies in the fight against Abu Sayyaf.

BIFF was originally formed to demand independence for the Moslems in the south. By 2014 the majority of Moslems and Christians in the Philippines agreed to an autonomous Moslem region on the southwest coast of the large southern island, Mindanao and the string of smaller islands (Sulu, Basilan, Tawi, Tawi) extending from southwestern Mindanao towards Malaysia. Bangasamoro is where most Filipino Moslems live and the new Moslem entity has more autonomy. Bangasamoro Moslems are now responsible for maintaining the peace. This is no small matter because, more than elsewhere in the Philippines, the Moslem south has long had many more clan militias that believed it was their right to engage in private wars. Not all the clans share the official attitudes about who has the right to make war in Bangasamoro. In late 2018 the decades long state of war against MILF ended and since then MILF has been a lot more useful in eliminating Islamic terror groups.

Bangasamoro governs the four million Moslems in the south. Down there the Moslems are outnumbered by Christians who had moved south during the last half century. Nationwide there are about 11 million Moslems and over 90 million Christians. The Christian Filipinos are better organized, more industrious and economically more successful. The Moslems believe they should run Mindanao even if they are the minority, because Mindanao is the local "Islamic homeland." While some in the government were willing to concede this, the Christian majority in Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines, does not. Because of this, groups like BIFF, ISIL and Abu Sayyaf are treated as outlaws in Bangasamoro and have lost support and members since 2014, but remain active, though a lot less active.

Maute Group is similar to BIFF and both joined Abu Sayyaf in forming the Filipino branch of ISIL in 2016. Maute Group was nearly wiped out during the May-October 2017 battle for Marawi City. In December 2017 the army confirmed that all seven Maute brothers died as a result of Marawi. These men were the core leadership as the largest ISIL faction in Marawi City was from the Maute Group, who unexpectedly brought in hundreds of their own gunmen who were willing to fight to the death and triggered an existing plan to gather in Marawi City to inspire local Moslems to rise up and drive out Christians. That did just the opposite and resulted in nearly all the thousand or so ISIL gunmen who showed up getting killed. Only about a dozen were willing to surrender and a hundred or so apparently escaped. The thousands of soldiers and police sent in to eliminate the ISIL force suffered 168 dead.

The Maute Group was formed in 2012 by members of the Maute family, which is one of the larger and wealthier clans in the south. The seven Maute brothers got mixed up with clan politics, MILF and eventually ISIL. Because all seven brothers died in Marawi City, the group limped on by recruiting from outside their clan. That has kept Maute Group going but, like BIFF, both groups have fewer than a hundred active members and Abu Sayyaf has about twice that.

Since 2017 the major source of losses to the local ISIL branch has been members who surrender or simply desert. The amnesty plan available to most ISIL members. Those known to have participated in murder or kidnapping are not eligible for amnesty but the government will negotiate a deal depending on how much useful information is being offered.

February 6, 2021: In the south ( Maguindanao province) eleven more BIFF members surrendered, along with their weapons. The amnesty program makes it possible to the eleven to return to civilian life if none have committed major crimes. The former BIFF members complained of constant pressure from the security forces and no financial support from BIFF leadership.

February 4, 2021: In the south (Lanao del Sur province) soldiers found and disabled three bombs that had been built and placed by local BIFF members to protect one of their camps while also killing soldiers and demoralizing the surviving troops. Tips from local civilians, who see BIFF as a bunch of bandits, enabled the soldiers to find the bombs before they could be triggered.

January 31, 2021: In South Korea a team of Filipino Navy officers and sailors completed their inspection of the second Rizal class frigates that were ordered in 2016. The second ships was declared in compliance with all contractual obligations and the South Korean crew that helped with the inspection, would take the ship to sea on February 5th for the five day voyage to the Philippines. These frigates cost $169 million each and are smaller versions of the South Korean FFX (Incheon class) frigate. The Rizal class frigates are 2,600-ton ships armed with a 76mm gun, a SMASH 30mm autocannon RWS (Remotely Operated System). This is Turkish system using the American Bushmaster 2 cannon. It has 150 rounds of ammo that can be fired singly or at up to 200 rounds a minute (3-4 a second) at targets up to three kilometers distant. The Italian 76mm cannon is also RWS and can fire 85 rounds a minute at targets up to 20 kilometers distant. Rizal is equipped to handle a CIWS (close in weapons system) like Phalanx but is not yet armed with one. There are also mounts for four 12.7mm machine-guns.

The Rizal is called a missile frigate because it has lots of missiles. There are four South Korean anti-ship missiles (sort of improved Harpoons) with a range of 160 kilometers. There are also four South Korean 320mm lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes with a range of 19 kilometers. There are two twin-launchers for Mistral heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles with a range of six kilometers. There is also space for an eight cell VLS (vertical launching system) but, as with the CIWS the fire control system can handle these if installed. There is also a hanger and landing pad for a helicopter. There are also two RHIBs (rigid inflatable speedboats) for landing parties.

Leaving out the CIWS and VLS cells and using the simpler Mistral anti-aircraft missiles kept the price down. The Rizal can also handle a towed sonar but does not have one yet. There is a sonar built into the hull. There is a 3-D air search radar as well as a navigation radar, a fire control radar and an electro-optical tracking system. The Rizal has a crew of 65 with accommodations for twenty more sailors plus 25 passengers. Top speed is 48 kilometers an hour and range is 8,300 kilometers. Endurance is 30 days. While the Rizals are capable to long-range cruises most of their time will be spent patrolling coastal waters and the Filipino EEZ. Given that the Philippines consists of 7,600 islands, there is plenty of coastline. Some of those islands are in the South China Sea and claimed by China.

January 27, 2021: In the south (Cotabato province) BIFF was suspected of planting a bomb near a bus station that exploded, killing two people and wounding four. Police sought the bombers who were apparently from neighboring Bangasamoro.

January 26, 2021: The 2020 international corruption ratings show the world that the Philippines not making progress dealing with corruption. In 2020 the Philippines ranked 115 out of 180 nations compared to 113 in 2019, 99 in 2018 and 111 in 2017.

The annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index measures corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 84. The Philippines has a has a score of 34, same as it was in 2019.

For 2020 the least corrupt nation in region was Singapore, which ranked 3rd out of 180 nations. The current Singapore score is 85 (same as 2019) compared to 65 (65) for Taiwan, 67 (69) for the United States, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 25 (26) for Iran, 71 (71) for UAE (United Arab Emirates), 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 40 (39) for Turkey, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.

A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. The Filipino corruption score has not changed much since 2012, when it was 34. There is still a lot of corruption in the Philippines but it is no longer “acceptable” (as in “everyone does it”). The hardcore corrupt believe that once Duterte is gone (presidents can only serve one term of six years) the good old ways will return. Yet former presidents, especially notably effective ones, retain a lot of influence on who gets elected and what happens after the election.

January 22, 2021: China enacted a new law authorizing their navy and coast guard to use lethal force to “protect” Chinese coastal waters, including those that are disputed by nations. In other words, Chinese coast guard and navy vessel commanders have the authority to open fire on trespassers, even when international courts have declared it is the Chinese who are trespassing. That was the case with the Philippines, which brought the issue to an international court with jurisdiction. In 2016 that United Nation recognized Permanent Court of Arbitration 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. At first 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 FONOPs 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. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression. Until the new “permission to open fire” law, Chinese armed coast guard and navy vessels had only been used to intimidate “trespassers” and have never opened fire. There has been violence in the form of bumping or even ramming “trespassers”. This has led to the countries being threatened to send their own warships to defend their territory. Until now this would usually cause the Chinese warships to back off. But the new low allows Chinese captains to order crews to prepare for combat and use the fire control radars to concentrate on possible targets. In the Chinese playbook this means the Chinese want to goad someone else to open fire first, which would make China the designated victim (according to Chinese media) and justified in unleashing violent and probably overwhelming retaliation.




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