The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
PHILIPPINES – HOT TOPICS
On this page:
- Insurgency and Terrorism
- War on Drugs
- Territorial Island Disputes
Insurgency and Terrorism
The Philippine Government faces threats from several groups, some of which are separatist movements and others which are on the US Government’s Foreign Terrorist Organisation and the Australian Government’s designated terrorist organisations lists.
The decades-long Maoist-inspired New People's Army insurgency operates through much of the country, but is greatly hindered by eroding support. Manila has waged a decades-long struggle against ethnic Moro insurgencies in the southern Philippines, which led to a peace accord with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 and a separate agreement with a breakaway faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Mostly based in the southern islands, some terrorist organisations have links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS). Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) formed in 1991 when it split from the MILF and has carried out dozens of attacks in the Philippines. At its peak it had over 1,000 members and was responsible for the Philippine’s worst terrorist attack, the bombing of Superferry 14 in 2004, which killed 116 people. In recent years, the group has focused on local violence and criminal activity, especially kidnap-for-ransom operations which are its primary source of funding. ASG suffered considerable casualties in 2020 due to Philippine counter-terrorism operations and is now estimated to have less than 50 members.
In May 2017, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) battled a militant siege in Marawi City, driving President Duterte to declare martial law in the region. Several militant groups, including ASG and Maute jihadist groups, had joined forces to launch attacks, with the intent on declaring a provincial ISIL territory (wilayat) in Lanao del Sur. This culminated in the longest urban battle in modern Filipino history, and a decisive victory for the AFP. By September 2017, the Battle of Marawi had displaced around 350,000 people and resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people.
The Cove has an excellent article on this topic: The Battle for Marawi: Small Teams Lessons Learnt for the Close Fight
For more information about the Marawi Siege and other insurgency groups see the following resources:
- Rappler | Documentary | MARAWI: 153 days of war [Warning: graphic content]
- CNA Insider | Extremism in Asia - ISIS-Linked Siege In Philippines: Can Marawi Recover, 4 Years On? [Warning: graphic content]
- DW News | Philippines army and Muslim rebels join forces against ISIS
- ABC News In-depth | Foreign Correspondent: Fleeing ISIS With A Bullet In Your Neck [Warning: graphic content]
- VICE News | Hunting For Terrorists In The Philippines
- Redfish | Inside the New People’s Army (Part 1)
- Council on Foreign Relations | Duterte Fumbles Southern Philippines
- Brookings | Terrorism in the Philippines and U.S.-Philippine security cooperation
- Geopolitical Monitor | Family Ties and New Recruits: Abu Sayyaf Proves Hard to Dislodge in the Philippines
- The Economist | The Philippine Army Recaptures a City Seized by Muslim Insurgents
War on Drugs
Owing to its geographical location, international drug syndicates often use the Philippines as a transit hub for illegal drug trafficking. In the 1990s, the Philippines became a temporary theatre of the US-led War on Drugs, but the new millennium saw a boom in the illegal drug industry, mainly marijuana and methamphetamine hydrochloride locally known as shabu.
Rodrigo Duterte’s landslide 2016 election was won on an extreme anti-drug platform, publicly promising to kill tens of thousands of criminals and drug addicts. Since taking office, the President fulfilled that promise and carried out a 'war on drugs' that has led to the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos. It has been reported that the large-scale expansion of police powers has given officers permission to falsify evidence to justify the extra judicial killings. Despite growing calls for an investigation – domestically and internationally – Duterte has vowed to continue the campaign.
- Brookings | The human rights consequences of the war on drugs in the Philippines
- The Atlantic | The Uncounted Dead of Duterte’s Drug War
- Reuters | Relatives of Philippine drug war victims alarmed by Duterte’s talk of staying on
- ABC NEWS | UN finds thousands killed with ‘near impunity’ in Philippines war on drugs
Territorial Island Disputes
The Philippines faces increased tension with the People’s Republic of China over disputed territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Currently the list of disputes includes the Camago and Malampaya gas fields, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratly Islands.
Manila claims sovereignty over Scarborough Reef and certain Spratly Islands, known locally as the Kalayaan (Freedom) Islands, which are also claimed by China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea eased tensions in the Spratly Islands but fell short of a legally binding ‘code of conduct’. In March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine activities in the Spratly Islands which temporarily eased hostilities. However, tensions remain at a critical level and are of significant concern to the international community. For an up-to-date and comprehensive breakdown see the Council on Foreign Relations’ Conflict Tracker on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
In July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a three-year dispute over territory in the South China Sea by declaring that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources falling within the “nine-dash line”. Although it seems Beijing has failed to recognise the decision. Despite this, economic cooperation between the two countries has expanded as President Duterte did not push for enforcement of the ruling.
While the Philippine leader still considers China 'a good friend', in May 2021 he said: 'There are things that are not really subject to a compromise'. In a tweet posted the next week, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. demanded Chinese ships leave the waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, escalating the long-standing territorial dispute. Beijing urged Manila to observe 'basic etiquette. Locsin was initially unabashed saying 'usual suave diplomatic speak gets nothing done', but later apologised to his counterpart Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Additionally, the Philippines retains a dormant claim to Malaysia Sabah State in northern Borneo. Based on the Sultanate of Sulu’s granting the Philippines Government power of attorney to pursue a sovereignty claim on his behalf in 1962.
- Financial Times | China, Philippines deepen ties in South China Sea
- Bloomberg Quicktake | The Militarisation of the South China Sea
- The Newsmakers | Philippines foreign policy: calming waters?
- Institute for Maritime and Ocean Affairs | Defending Philippine Sovereign Rights in the West Philippine Sea
- TLDR News | Tensions Escalate in The South China Sea: Why China Builds Islands to Claim the Sea
- Council on Foreign Relations | China's Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea
- SMH | Philippines’ foreign minister to China: ‘get the f--- out’
- Geopolitical Futures | Brief: China Tests the Philippines and US Red Lines
- The ASEAN Post | Sabah: Malaysia’s Or Philippines’?
- Nikkei Asia | Malaysia's spat with Philippines over Sabah: Five things to know
- Lowy Institute: The Interpreter | Reading between the lines: Duterte’s careful South China Sea speech
- The insurgency in the southern island groups appears to have subsided due to significant government military operations over the past decade. Do terrorist and separatist groups remain a threat to Filipino stability? What future role could Australia play in supporting ongoing stability?
- President Duterte appears to be sending conflicting messages about the Filipino position on Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and other contested island groups. How does this impact Australian interests in the region? What does this mean for potential security cooperation with regional partners?
- The Philippines has undertaken a massive anti-narcotics program, which many international analysts have stated breaches human rights. What implications does this have for Australian military cooperation on potential combined counter insurgency operations?
- Although holding good relationships with most of its neighbours, there are still differences over many of the island groups predominantly relating to territorial ownership and fishing rights. Can these differences be resolved diplomatically, or is there a risk of conflict? What role might Australia have in maintaining stability in these situations?