Philippines: Another Attitude Adjustment

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July 1, 2021: The government has backed off on plans to cancel the existing VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) with the United States. Without the VFA any American troops entering the Philippines have to apply for a visa. This is a time-consuming process but that is not all. Without VFA American military personnel are subject to Filipino courts and legal proceedings. As a general rule the United States requires something like the VFA, usually called a Status Of Forces (SOF) agreement, before it will allow U.S. troops to enter the territory of a friendly nation. The Philippines still has a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and that could still be invoked by the Philippines if needed. The most immediate damage from no VFA is American military assistance during an emergency, usually of the natural disaster variety. The closest American aid is usually the U.S. Navy which can quickly provide helicopters, medical care, electrical power (from docked warships) as well as radio and other communications gear brought ashore for a disaster zone. Without a VFA/SOF such emergency aid is limited depending on the risk from corrupt local justice systems and politicians. American troops have been visiting the Philippines to provide training assistance or, as has often happened in the last few decades, the U.S. forces provide additional intelligence and aerial surveillance support. Without the VFA these troops have restrictions on their activities. They are usually restricted to the bases they are working from as well as travel restrictions. The Filipino military opposed the VFA cancellation.

The VFA cancellation threat was in response to the U.S. sanctions imposed on some Filipinos involved with president Duterte’s war on drugs. One of the key Filipino police commanders who carried out the war on drugs was Ronald dela Rosa, who commanded the national police at the start of the war on drugs five years ago. Two years later he retired, ran for the senate and won. His victory was largely because of his prominent role in getting the war on drugs going. Even before Duterte became president dela Rosa was a fan and, in the Senate, he became a major ally. But some foreign nations consider dela Rosa a criminal for what they feel was illegal acts during the war on drugs. Duterte and most Filipinos disagree with that. They also disagree with punishing dela Rosa with sanctions so there was some popular support for discarding the VFA.

That has changed over the last fifteen months because of continuing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and increasing militancy by West Pacific nations threatened by Chinese expansion. Filipino threats to make American military and emergency assistance more difficult to provide were less popular in the Philippines. A few months ago, Duterte downgraded the “cancel VFA” threat to, asking that the U.S. pay to renew the VFA. That did not generate much interest as the Philippines turned to the United States to obtain a dozen modern jet fighters. The U.S. approved the sale of a dozen F-16s as well as air-to-air missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Sweden is also competing for that sale, offering its JAS 39C Gripen. The F-16 has an edge because it has been used by other West Pacific nations for decades and has a more extensive and successful combat record than Gripen.

Finally, there was the covid19 vaccine situation. At first China offered its own covid19 vaccines at a low price and sooner than Western vaccines. This backfired when it was discovered that China was charging the Philippines three or more times per dose as other customers in east Asia and Africa. Moreover, the Chinese vaccine turned out to be much less effective than Western vaccines also available to the Philippines. Worse, all these negotiations and delays in Chinese deliveries meant that the Philippines will be the last nation in the region to receive enough vaccine to suppress the covid19 threat. Currently several million Western covid19 vaccines are being delivered, most of them (from the U.S.) free-of-charge.

President Duterte has maintained unusually high approval ratings in this, his last year in office. Even with the covid19 crisis and growing foreign criticism of his anti-drug policies, Filipino voters see Duterte’s leadership as more effective than any other Filipino president. Duterte pays attention to what Filipinos need and changes his decisions to deal with new circumstances. His anti-drug campaign pledge was what got him elected. After five-years, drug use is down over 50 percent and so are crime rates. With all this, there is no longer much Filipino support for ending the VFA. Duterte cannot run for reelection.

June 28, 2021: In the north (outside the capital) security forces, acting on a tip, found and clashed with several armed members of the NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) and killed one of them, who was later identified as the vice commander of NPA forces in Bataan Province. The NPA, along with the smaller ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the south, have been in decline for over a decade but have been active for about half a century. The end of the Cold War in 1991 and the collapse of most communist governments in Europe left the NPA without much external, or internal support and now the NPA is regarded as bandits who used to be leftist rebels.

In neighboring Indonesia, the U.S. and Indonesia are building a new naval training center in the Riau Islands on the southern edge of the South China Sea. The Riau Islands consist of nearly 1,800 islands, many of them tiny and uninhabited, between Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo and near the Malacca Strait. The Riau Islands are actually a province of Indonesia, but contain only 8,200 square kilometers (3,267 square miles) of land and about two million people. The training center will cost $3.5 million and is one of several joint projects the Americans are doing with Indonesia, which has been particularly aggressive in keeping Chinese intruders (coast guard, naval militia or poachers) away from Indonesian waters. Indonesian ships have opened fire and sunk some trespassing Chinese ships.

June 23, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) troops with a warrant for the arrest of a local Abu Sayyaf member, were met with gunfire as they approached the house where he was staying. The Abu Sayyaf gunman was killed. The dead man was one of the few Abu Sayyaf members skilled at building explosive vests. He had components for such a vest with him. Abu Sayyaf now considers itself the local ISIL affiliate and one reason for that was ISIL can provide cash and technical experts, not to mention worldwide publicity and a fearsome reputation. The Filipino counterterror operations have been increasingly successful in going after those specialists and support experts that keep Abu Sayyaf deadly and functional.

June 20, 2021: In the south (Maguindanao province) a two day running battle with ten armed BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) ended with two of the Islamic terrorists dead and several others wounded but able to get away with the others. There are only about a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they eventually evaded the two-day pursuit by the soldiers. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. The pursuit did reveal the existence of an abandoned BIFF base-camp that was built to accommodate up to a hundred members.

June 18, 2021: Commercial satellite and electronic surveillance of the South China Sea revealed that there were a hundred more ships, than the previous month, in Filipino EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) portions of the South China Sea, which Filipinos call the West Philippines Sea. Most of these additional ships were Chinese military or naval militia sent into the EEZs of other South China Sea nations EEZ to claim islands or reefs for China. The number of ships has grown from 129 to 238 in the last month. China can put over 600 ships, mostly naval militia (subsidized Chinese fishing trawlers called into active military service).

June 13, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) security forces tracked four armed Abu Sayyaf men to their hiding place and were met with gunfire as they approached. All four of the Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed.

June 8, 2021: In the central Philippines (Masbate province) security forces tracked and confronted three NPA rebels. A gun battle ensued and all three NPA gunmen were killed.

 

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