Collective PME

#KYR: Philippines - Hot Topics

By The Cove October 4, 2021


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.

If you want to learn about other facets of the Philippines, here are the other KYR: Philippines pages: Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economy.

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:

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.

 

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.

 Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

This is a challenging conundrum for any Foreign Affairs department. A few observations from the readings provided. The July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in connection with the dispute over the South Chine Sea. "Despite this....Duterte did not push for enforcement of the ruling." This speaks volumes in that China's investments in Philippines are growing significantly. Trade with the PRC is growing, and Chinese visitors tops the international tourists visit chart. Ankit Panda, a US-based economics adviser, provided interesting insights into the Philippines / China relationship during a Jul 27, 20221 podcast. From this, it can be gleaned that military deployments (train / assist ) are easy and attractive solutions ie they don’t buy into the governance issues – they simply help track, disrupt and eliminate the bad guys. In all military support packages, the questions need to ask, “Who will pay?”, “What are the benefits?” and “Is the end state achievable?” On the other hand, what is needed is full spectrum engagement that includes, health, economic, and commercial support and mentoring at the senior public service and corporate CEO levels. The fact that close to 25 percent of the population earn 60c or less per day suggests that fighting Muslim fundamentalists is a welcome distraction to dealing with what could amount to be far more serious crime, security and public safety issues in the north. The dilemma for the West is that China is able to put boots on the ground also but would prefer to sink fishhooks’ as far as they can in the economic sphere and leave the military adventures inside the country to others. China would prefer to keep its powder dry for reef protection. The southern Philippines insurgency problem needs to be dealt with but its only an indicator that something is not quite right in the governance area in the north. Every small war can attest to the fact that “at the root of all insurgent wars is bad government.” (BRIG Ian Gardiner, Royal Marines). From a practical perspective, the Philippines government, and indeed all of Southeast Asia knows that China will always be in the region. We in the West need to understand this and structure our diplomatic capability and support package accordingly. The Philippines / Australia relationship is too valuable to take the short-term low hanging fruit rather than the longer-term fruit at the top of the tree.

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