Chinese efforts to gain control of the South China Sea have become increasingly aggressive. For example, this year Chinese garrisons on artificial islands have been firing flares towards approaching Filipino warplanes or ships. It’s a symbolic gesture but another escalation towards eventually opening fire with real bullets. In the last few months, the online (Information War) and diplomatic aspect of the South China Sea conflict has become particularly heated and unscrupulous. China is usually the aggressor online and in news media while delivering a kinder and gentler message diplomatically. Recent remarks of senior Filipino officials demonstrate that the Philippine government is nearly unanimous in believing the Chinese assurance and promises cannot be trusted. While the Philippines admits it cannot stand up to China in a war, they can use Chinese tactics and disrupt Chinese military and civilian operations in the South China Sea. Other nations suffering from the Chinese aggression are similarly fed up and going Chinese on the Chinese.
Filipinos are also angry at other forms of Chinese deception and outright lies. For example, China promised large economic investments in the Philippines and more Filipinos being allowed to work in China. Both of these “gifts” and “investments” never arrived. The promised foreign worker angle backfired big time as the government allowed more Chinese to enter the Philippines and many were not the expected tourists or legal entrepreneurs, but gangsters who have become a growing problem. The most recent backfire was the Chinese-developed covid19 vaccine that was provided to the Philippines. This initially 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 were paying. 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 have meant that the Philippines will be the last nation in the region to receive enough vaccine to suppress the covid19 threat. Recently China delivered large quantities of their vaccines at no cost.
The Philippines appears to get most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea because 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. The Philippines is also the weakest (in military terms) nation China is seizing territory from and their mutual defense treaty with the United States is not always adequate to deal with the Chinese tactics. Moreover, the American government can change readily every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China. So far that has not been the case, as the new American government has only been in power since January 2021. So far the U.S. pledges to continue supporting resistance to Chinese South China Sea claims remain in place.
The accelerating decline of rebel and Islamic terrorist groups has led to more optimistic forecasts of when these groups will become non-existent, except the few veterans who join local criminal gangs. Earlier this year the communist NPA was seen as gone by mid-2022 and that now appears pessimistic. Military and police intel indicates that NPA is down to about 3,500 members and fading fast. This decline became noticeable after the late 2020 decision to designate the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) and NPA (New People’s Army) terrorists under the New Anti-Terrorism Act.
The NPA has been suffering a massive decline in popular and communist party support. Increasingly most NPA units must depend on extortion, theft and other criminal activity to survive. This is causing much anger and protest in areas where the NPA still operates “for the good of the people.” Yet the NPA can no longer do much political work when their very survival is at risk.
The government tried, without much success, to negotiate a peace deal with the NPA. The leadership, as well as the commanders of various armed factions, were split on which peace terms were acceptable and most were continuing to operate (fighting and stealing). The NPA, to most Filipinos, have become bandits with a veneer of communist ideology to justify their crimes. The banditry option is not working well enough to assure long-term survival. This can also be seen when factions run short of money. Less cash and popular support led to more desertions. The army will grant amnesty to NPA members who surrender, especially if they bring their weapons and some useful information with them. Information on the location of NPA camps, weapons storage sites or covert supporters is considered useful and the fact that more NPA camps are being attacked, weapons storage sites seized and key supporters arrested indicates that the NPA is losing secrets as well as people and popular support. Some NPA leaders feel this is all a temporary setback and that a peace deal would enable a revitalized Philippines Communist Party to become a major political power. These delusions make negotiating a peace deal difficult. Meanwhile the NPA has maintained its status as a major source of criminal, as opposed to Islamic terrorist, activity in the country. Most of the NPA senior leadership live in Europe and are considered somewhat out of touch with the reality of what the NPA has become in the Philippines. The exiled NPA leadership still has some support in Western nations, which contributes to criticism of the Filipino tactics used to suppress NPA criminal activity.
August 24, 2021: In the south (Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte provinces) soldiers pursuing ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) affiliated rebels since the 15th and that led to about 2,000 villagers fleeing their homes in the last week to avoid being near a gun battle between the troops and about 30 fanatic members of
DITG (Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group). Members of this group tend to fight to the death rather than surrender and will often make their last stand in a remote village, where dead villagers are considered “involuntary martyrs” in the defense of Islam. Remnants of several ISIL factions have been trying to survive in this area since 2017. DITG has few personnel left and there have been a few DITG bombings since 2019, usually against military convoys or camps. A month ago, one the last known DITG bomb-builders was killed and the army found evidence that there were more armed DITG members around than previously believed. On the plus side all or most of them had coalesced into one group led by a known DITG leader. This faction was first identified and encountered on the 15th and several times since then. The troops are trying to force the Islamic terrorists into a fight, or a surrender. DITG survived four years of constant army patrols and civilians who phone in tips as well as those who provide just “terrorists have been here” messages. While there is cell phone coverage in 95 percent of the populated areas there are still many rural areas where people own cell phones but have to travel to a town or city to use them. Desperate Islamic terrorists will destroy existing cell towers in areas where they are being pursued. What has hurt the Islamic terrorists most is that more rural Moslems openly provide information and the security forces have lists of towns and villages where there are informants. The names of informants are often not provided but local soldiers and police know that just asking local leaders or merchants will get them to someone who has timely information to share. DITG has been trying to regroup, rebuild and move forward with more devastating attacks. Their attacks since 2019 caused little damage and few casualties. DITG was never officially acknowledged by ISIL and is composed of the survivors of the Maute Group, which was largely wiped out in 2017 when they tried to take over the nearby city of Marawi. That failed in a spectacular fashion, which is one reason ISIL does not want to be associated with this group.
August 20, 2021:
In the south (Negros Occidental province), an army patrol, responding to a tip, confronted about a dozen NPA rebels and there was a 35-minute-long firefight, which left two rebels and one soldier dead. The remaining rebels fled in different directions. Local civilians had called the local army base to report the armed NPA men in their area demanding revolutionary “taxes” and trying to recruit locals, especially teenage boys, to join them. This NPA visit failed on all counts and is typical of what the NPA is suffering from; less fear and cooperation among local civilians. Too many civilians will see them coming and grab their cell phones to report the leftist rebels, and then stall them until the army or police arrive. The players are getting played.
In the capital president Duterte publicly thanked the Chinese ambassador after the Chinese had donated another million doses of their Sinopharm covid19 vaccine. Duterte told the ambassador that the Philippines would remain neutral in disputes between China and other countries. That was a lie but the Filipinos have learned to use Chinese tactics against the Chinese. Everyone smiles and goes back to preparing for war. China wants the South China Sea and would prefer to get it without fighting.
August 16, 2021:
In the south (Eastern Samar province) acting on detailed information from locals, soldiers carried out a pre-dawn raid on an NPA camp locals believed was also where NPA built roadside bombs. Many of the NPA at the camp fled but sixteen were killed and 29 assault rifles were captured along with other equipment, including explosives. Some of the rebels who escaped were wounded and when it was light enough the troops tracked the fleeting rebels. It’s become common for individual NPA members, especially after surviving an attack like this, to later surrender to police and guide them to hidden locations where bombs and other weapons were stored for later use. Local civilians have become increasingly and openly hostile towards the NPA on Samar Island. This began three years ago and. The communist rebels adapted to the hostility of the rural populations by attacking them regularly. These marauding leftist rebels are now seen as political bandits rather than potential liberators. The security forces had to deal with these new rebel tactics, which are particularly effective in rural areas where roads are few and the rebels can set up their ambush on routes certain to have army or police vehicles pass by. NPA use of roadside bombs and gunfire became a favorite tactic that caused the leftist more problems than it solved.
In the South China Sea Filipino and Indian warships carried out joint training exercises. Five days earlier the two Indian warships had carried out similar training with Vietnamese warships off the Vietnamese coast. India has become a more active part of the growing coalition of nations opposing Chinese claims on the South China Sea.
August 13, 2021:
In the south (Maguindanao province) there was another arranged surrender by a BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) commander and his followers. In this case eleven BIFF men turned themselves in with their weapons and told interrogators what they knew. There are less than a hundred BIFF members left and most are veterans, which explains how they have remained active for so long. Because of their small numbers, BIFF has not been able to carry out any attacks lately. Just surviving has become a full-time BIFF activity.
August 11, 2021: In the south (Sulu province) eleven more members of Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists surrendered. So far this year operations in the south have put about 150 Abu Sayyaf out of action with most of them surrendering. Surrenders and arrests account for nearly 90 percent of al Shabaab losses so far this year, with the rest killed by troops and police.
July 29, 2021: The government agreed to renew
the existing VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement) with the United States. Until recently president Duterte has threatened to let the VGA expire. 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 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. Duterte also demanded more economic and military aid than the U.S. was willing to provide. The Americans responded with some more aid but only in return for cooperation from Duterte.