Philippines: A Sea Of Troubles


March 24, 2023: China continues asserting ownership of vast offshore areas that are legally considered part of the Philippines. Worse, the Philippines gets most of the unwanted Chinese attention in the South China Sea. That’s 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). 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 has territorial claims on.

The Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States that does not adequately deal with Chinese tactics of a combination of lawfare and use of unique Chinese military forces. Most Chinese commercial ships, particularly freighters and ocean-going fishing ships, are considered part of a military maritime reserve force and are expected to follow orders from navy or coast guard ships whenever called upon. This arrangement is not unusual as it is an ancient practice still used in many parts of the world. But the Chinese commercial naval militia ships are expected to collect intelligence and sometimes even risk damage and injuries by having their ships block the movement of foreign ships (including warships). In return the Chinese navy and coast guard will come to the assistance if Chinese commercial and fishing ships get in trouble with foreign navies or coast guards. But this arrangement does not always work out as it should, particularly against Indonesia whose navy and air force sometimes destroy Chinese fishing vessels in Indonesia waters, and threaten to destroy their supporting Chinese “naval militia” vessels.

Illegal fishing is a worldwide problem and Chinese trawlers are the biggest offenders. Most of the 5,500 Chinese built and operated commercial ships are much larger and usually operate legally. Some get involved, with government permission or under government orders, in smuggling. This usually involves transporting oil from embargoed nations like Iran. The oil is often transferred to a tanker operating legally. This is done at night and this has increasingly been spotted and high-resolution video taken by American or allied nation maritime patrol aircraft. These videos make it possible to identify the ships involved so the Chinese deny any official involvement and don’t punish the Chinese crews and shipping companies involved.

In the South China Sea, China’s naval militia is the main threat to Filipino efforts to protect islands, reefs and lucrative fishing grounds that are economically important. Other offshore areas have natural gas and oil that can be economically retrieved with new technology. The Philippines has ownership of these underwater treasures but China has the means to take and hold them using their larger fleet of commercial and military ships as well as the implied use of force.

Aside from the Chinese threat, the Philippines are at peace. Islamic terrorists and the communist NPA rebels are much reduced in numbers and are much less of a threat than in the past. The most serious problems are corruption and criminal activity. Eliminating the criminal gangs is a lot more difficult than dealing with Islamic terrorists and armed political rebels like the NPA. The gangs survive in part because of the corruption. With enough cash or ability to intimidate the gangs avoid arrest and prosecution.

The corruption and gangsters make it difficult to start and run a business. As a result, many educated and ambitious Filipinos leave the country. Many families have kin living abroad and sending money back to their family. This is a major economic factor for many Filipinos. Ten million Filipinos work overseas and send money home. These remittances are currently about $36 billion a year, which is about nine percent of national GDP. In effect, a fifth of the Filipino workforce is employed outside the Philippines and twelve percent of households in the Philippines depend on remittance income. That is, 20 percent of the Filipino workforce produces only 9 percent of GDP. This is the price of Filipino corruption. Another widespread cost is inflation, which is currently higher than it’s been in the last fifteen years. The visibly escalating cost of staples like food and common consumer goods is very visible and widely felt. For many educated Filipinos it’s another reason to seek work outside of the country.

Filipinos are very popular overseas workers because of their energy, skills and ability to speak English well. There are no comparable jobs at home for all this talent because of the corruption that stifles economic growth. Worldwide Filipino remittance income has the greatest impact on the home country. Three other nations (Mexico, China and India) receive more remittance income ($50-70 billion each) but two of these nations have far larger populations and GDP, while Mexico is adjacent to the United States and easier to get into legally or illegally. Mexico has a population of 129 million and GDP of $1.4 trillion. The Philippines has 109 million people and a GDP of $401 billion, less than a third of Mexico’s.

March 20, 2023: In the south (Sulu province) an army patrol confronted a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen. There was a brief gun battle in which one Abu Sayyaf man was killed while the others fled.. Two of the soldiers were wounded in the encounter.

Outside Manila seized 85 weapons and large quantities of ammunition from the home of a man believed to be a member of a Taiwanese criminal organization operating in the Philippines. There are also Chinese gangsters to deal with. The Chinese and Taiwanese engage in a wide variety of criminal activity, including smuggling drugs and weapons into the Philippines. The weapons are often sold to local gangsters who also distribute the drugs. The Taiwanese and Chinese gangsters are often wanted back home for similar crimes.

March 13, 2023: Two American F-22 stealth fighters visited Clark Air Base in the Philippines for two days of joint training with Filipino FA-50 warplanes. Back in 2012 the U.S. agreed to help the Philippines patrol the offshore waters that China also claims. The exact nature of this assistance had not yet been determined. The Philippines wants additional ships, aircraft and surveillance gear (like coastal radars) as well as the presence of American warships. China has protested this American assistance, for obvious reasons. The new arrangement included U.S. resuming use of their old base facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. The airbase was built by the United States in 1903 as Clark Field. It was expanded before World War II in anticipation of Filipino independence in 1945. That was delayed until 1946 by the Japanese, who occupied the base from December 1941 until 1945. After Filipino independence the Americans continued Clark Air Base until 1991, when they turned over to Filipino control and withdrew their aircraft and personnel. In 1990 Clark had a population of 15,000 military personnel and civilians and was one of the major U.S. Air Force bases in the Pacific. Clark also served as an air base for military and commercial cargo and passenger flights. This included an airline terminal building and facilities for refueling and performing needed repairs on commercial aircraft. Clark was also a base for military combat and transport aircraft. When the Philippines took over in 1991, they used Clark mainly as a commercial airbase. Filipino military aircraft were also based there but the Philippines always had a very small air force. That’s one reason why the Philippines welcomed the U.S. Air Force (and occasionally U.S. Navy) aircraft back eleven years ago. This agreement also includes American assistance in repairing and rebuilding five smaller airbases which the Americans will also have access to. In addition, the U.S. forces will have access to four other existing Filipino bases, including one in the northern Philippines that is the closest Filipino base to the South China Sea and Taiwan. As expected, China complained that this was another act of American aggression against China.

The Filipino Air Force only has twelve FA-50 fighters plus eleven propeller driven ground attack aircraft. There are a lot of maritime patrol, transports, helicopters and UAVs used for aerial surveillance and transport. For most of its history as an independent state the Philippines needed air transports and surveillance aircraft more than fighters and bombers. Until the Chinese became a threat in the 1990s, combat aircraft were not needed. The Philippines received its South Korean FA-50s six years ago. After World War II the Philippine Air Force had secondhand combat aircraft that were used against various local rebel groups. The combat aircraft included second-hand helicopter gunships. There were no eternal enemies until the Chinese showed up. The Philippines usually bought second-hand military aircraft because there was never a lot of money for new ones.

March 11, 2023: A Filipino Coast Guard plane flying over one of the nine Spratly Islands occupied by Filipinos, received a radio message from a nearby Chinese coast guard vessel ordering the Philippine aircraft to leave “Chinese airspace”. The Filipinos radioed back that they were flying over Philippine islands and the Chinese ship went radio-silent.

March 5, 2023: China is again trying to force the Philippines to abandon Pagasa Island. This is one of the Spratly Islands and for several years China has been blockading the island for a while. This time China has deployed one warship and at least forty ships belonging to the Chinese naval militia. Pagasa is the second largest of the Spratly Islands and also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines is the only claimant with a settlement and military garrison on the island. The Chinese are using non-lethal (most of the time) force to drive everyone else out the South China Sea islands they claim. The last time China used force (against Vietnam) was in the 1970s, before China became dependent on the sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea to the Middle East, Africa and Australia.

While the South China Sea combat is non-lethal, the economic damage to other nations with legal claims to portions of the South China Sea is very real. As this shoving match escalates, other major trading nations, especially the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as more distant industrialized nations, are lending military support. While everyone is under orders to not open fire, unless facing a lethal threat, the risk of the shoving match turning into a shooting match increases.

China created the current crisis over who controls Pagasa Island and nearby sandbars. Since 2019 China has sent a record number of ships to block access to disputed islands, especially, Pagasa. Most of these are Chinese fishing boats pretending to be fishing but in reality, are members of the Chinese naval militia which is now composed of about a thousand ships that are paid regularly to be available when called upon to carry out paramilitary duties, usually in the South China Sea. China insists it has not ordered its naval militia fishing boats to physically block Filipino commercial or military ships from getting to Pagasa. Despite that pledge it has become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening to cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a similar number of police and military personnel.

The Philippines has played nice with China for over a decade while also upgrading its naval and air forces. The Filipino rearmament program has been aided by American, Japanese and Australian donations of warships and aircraft as well as offers of low-cost military equipment. Because of that the Philippines now has enough warships and patrol aircraft to maintain constant patrols of disputed areas. China responds with larger (often over a hundred at a time) unarmed ships as well as a growing number of armed ships and aircraft. Despite the military buildup, Filipino leaders still have to face the fact that they cannot use force to oppose the Chinese. More powerful allies are needed for that. That has led to closer military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States.

March 1, 2023: In the south (Negros Occidental province) soldiers found and attacked a group of about twenty NPA rebels after receiving a tip from a local civilian. The NPA has been trying to make a comeback in this area but army intelligence was monitoring the situation and informants warned that NPA was recruiting again. Soldiers and police went after the recruiters and the army went looking for armed and organized NPA groups. NPA is in decline throughout the country and largely survives by stealing what they need.

February 20, 2023: In the north (Albay province) two soldiers on a non-combat mission were ambushed and killed by several NPA gunmen.




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