After six years since 2014, the President Rodrigo R. Duterte finally lifted the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), a unilateral action that Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi described as an exercise of sovereign rights of the Philippine government in accordance with existing international laws, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Department of Energy has now issued a notice to Service Contractors to “resume to work” on petroleum-related activities in WPS, particularly in areas covered by Service Contracts 59, 72, and 75.
What are the implications of this decision for Philippine economic development and the management of territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, particularly on Philippines-China relations?
The resumption of natural gas and oil exploration activities in the aforementioned Service Contracts has a huge potential to trigger Philippine economic development because it can address the Philippines’ growing energy requirements. The lifting of the moratorium will now enable the Philippine government to implement the following Service Contracts:
SC 72 located at Reed Bank with a size of 880,000 hectares
SC 75 located at North West of Palawan with a size of 616,000 hectares
SC 54 located at North West of Palawan with a size of 99,515 hectares
SC 58 located at West Calamian also North West of Palawan with a size of 1,344,000 hectares
SC 59 located at West Balabac of South West of Palawan with a size of 1,476,000 hectares
According to the combined study conducted recently by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), the Reed Bank/Recto Bank basin where SC 72 is located, can potentially provide an estimate of 3.9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas worth US$ 19.9 billion and an estimate of 35 million barrels (MMbbl) of oil worth US$ 2.1 billion, not to mention an estimate of 21 MMbbl or oil condensates worth US$ 1.2 billion.
Natural gas and oil development in Reed Bank, alone, can therefore reduce the country’s dependency on imported oil and natural gas. Its appropriate development can provide the Philippines its needed supply of natural gas and oil for around a century. Thus, if the Philippine government can implement other Active Petroleum Service Contracts in the WPS, the benefits they can bring to the Philippine economy can be enormous, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic where economic recovery efforts are warranted.
Natural gas and oil exploration and development in the WPS also has tremendous potential to peacefully manage Philippines-China disputes in the South China Sea.
With the lifting of the moratorium, the Philippines and China can now implement their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Oil and Gas Development in the South China Sea signed by two governments on 20 November 2018.
The MOU aims to promote cooperation and avoid conflicts in the South China Sea. Thus, the implementation of the MOU has the great potential to peacefully manage disputes in the South China Sea. During the 5th meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) in the South China Sea on 28 October 2019 in Beijing, the Philippines and China also held the 1st Intergovernmental Joint Steering Committee (IGJSC) on Oil and Gas Development where both parties clarified their respective positions on Oil and Gas Development under the MOU.
However, both countries still need to discuss further the following issues to have a meaningful bilateral cooperation in the development of oil and gas in the WPS: 1) Legal framework for cooperation arrangements; 2) Scope of cooperation areas in the WPS; 3) Taxation processes; and, 4) Dispute settlement mechanism.
If the Philippines and China can find common grounds to address these issues in the implementation of MOU on oil and gas development in the WPS, the area will no longer be a flashpoint of conflict but a sea of friendship and cooperation.
Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD, is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR). He is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College. Photo Credits: Department of Energy.
On 24 August, two explosions in Jolo, a city in Sulu province in the southern Philippines, killed 15 and injured 74—a chilling case of déjà vu in a region that has suffered repeated attacks in recent years. The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence. The explosions also reheated familiar media tropes of Islamic State’s perseverance amid the coronavirus pandemic and seemingly ceaseless lawlessness. But it’s important to move beyond this narrative to grasp the structural foundations of the turmoil Sulu finds itself in.
At the BARMM’s fringe, Sulu has been a traditional bastion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first ethno-nationalist resistance movement in Muslim Mindanao, founded by Nur Misuari in 1972.
Over the decades, the MNLF splintered several times and entered politics at the provincial and municipal levels. It is currently divided into two factions: Misuari’s wing and forces loyal to Yusoph Jikiri, a rival leader. Both are political–military organisations with hundreds of men still under arms. A majority of local elites who dominate various Sulu towns are ex-MNLF commanders who have been co-opted by the state from the late 1970s onwards, and who themselves control private armies.
Because the ASG was established by disgruntled MNLF commanders, its resilience until now has been fostered by blood ties with MNLF personalities and politicians. This intricate web allows room for cooperation while facing a common enemy, such as the military, and while pursuing economic benefits, such as revenue generated by kidnappings.
Sulu mayors publicly denounce the ASG, but they often lack incentives to counteract its presence because of kinship ties or don’t have the capabilities to do so because of weak governance. This in turn gives ASG commanders such as Sawadjaan ample opportunity to draw on a base of young and deprived individuals for new recruits. The governance vacuum also allows the ASG to promote its ideology unimpeded, even if it’s directed at an external audience.
At the outer edges of the Sulu archipelago, violence has declined in recent years. But the largest island in the chain, Jolo, has remained the centre of gravity for continued conflict.
Since late 2018, Sulu has hosted an infantry division of the Philippine army with over 10 battalions that bear responsibility for a population of around half a million. Yet, despite the heavy military presence, the ASG, after several presidential announcements of operations and deadlines to eliminate it, hasn’t been defeated and continues operating from the mountainous town of Patikul and environs. Moreover, bad blood between the military and police has recently contributed to a schism within the local security apparatus, lowering trust in the national government.
In recent peace processes in the southern Philippines, Sulu was more of a bystander than a key participant. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter that emerged as the main guerrilla force in Bangsamoro after the MNLF entered politics, signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. That process culminated in the creation of the BARMM in 2019.
The MILF has been leading the Bangsamoro Transition Authority since March 2019 but has only a miniscule presence in Sulu and limited soft power to shape governance. Sulu’s governor, Abdusakur Tan, the province’s kingpin who controls most local elites, initially opposed the province joining the BARMM but has since adapted to the new situation.
Still, a year and a half into the transition, the cooperation could be smoother. Historic competition for political dominance of Muslim Mindanao between Maguindanaons (those hailing from Maguindanao province who lead MILF and dominate the Bangsamoro Transition Authority) and Tausug (who hold sway in Sulu and command the MNLF) still lingers.
Moreover, various political dynasties that control Sulu’s municipalities are deeply entrenched, and it will take time for the transition authority to navigate the tensions between instituting necessary governance reforms and accommodating Tan’s leadership.
The Philippine army initially proposed imposing martial law in response to the bombings, but locals in Jolo—traditionally wary of the military—were sceptical about that option and army chiefs withdrew the proposal. Governor Tan also rejected martial law, yet he didn’t offer concrete proposals of his own for how to prevent further violence.
Sulu is facing one of two likely scenarios in the aftermath of the bombing: a more intensified campaign by government forces against militants, or a business-as-usual, short-term security response without strategic vision. Either response, however, will need to supplement possible military or police action with measures outside the security toolbox, such as working with local governments and creating economic opportunities.
A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations as well as complementary efforts in intelligence sharing between the two services. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia should also foster stronger cooperation to tackle cross-border flows of militants that feed into the ASG’s networks and to prevent its maritime renaissance.
Security institutions would need to distinguish between the objective of merely dismantling insurgent cells and the broader goal of curbing the power of clan-based networks that fuel the resilience of the ASG. Stronger political engagement by Manila with both MNLF factions could help enlist their support in that task. In addition, leaders in Sulu and the BARMM should increase their cooperation.
Sulu could also learn from the experience in neighbouring Basilan, where provincial elites and government security forces changed the status quo over the years by building a broad coalition against the ASG network. For now, it is unclear whether the fresh violence in Jolo will drive change in a similar direction.
Georgi Engelbrecht is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, based in Manila. Before that he worked for several years in Mindanao.
This piece originally appeared on 16 September 2020 in The Strategist.
9/11 was a milestone in the history of American global leadership since the end of the Second World War as it exposed the vulnerability of the US as a global power and of the international community as a family of sovereign nations.
The aftermath of 9/11 strongly demonstrated the serious threat posed by international terrorism to world peace, state security, and human welfare. Initially identified with Al-Qaeda, threats of international terrorism now come from various violent extremist elements from the left to the right of the political spectrum, particularly from the Islamic State (IS), originally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), named in the Arab world as Daesh (Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām). According to Country Reports on Terrorism published by the US State Department in July 2020, despite global and national efforts, dangerous terrorist threats have persisted around the world.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist threats continue unabated. Terrorist organizations are even exploiting the current pandemic to propagandize, recruit members, and mount violent attacks in the most public health-challenged areas of the world. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned recently that the COVID-19 pandemic is providing new opportunities for terror groups to advance their malevolent goals of wreaking havoc not only in developing and fragile states, but also in highly developed states like the US.
Countering terrorism for the past nineteen years has taught the US that defeating international terrorism requires the cooperation of other states. Since 9/11, the US has been pursuing counterterrorism cooperation not only with its allies and partners in the world, but even with its traditional adversaries and competitors like Russia and China.
US counterterrorism cooperation with China is one of the most important bilateral power arrangements in the world. Counterterrorism is an area where the whole world sees the US and China cooperating rather than competing for influence. Though the US and China continue to have different political outlooks on many issues, both powers are cooperating when it comes to combating terrorism. The US State Department even spoke highly of China’s efforts against international terrorism immediately after 9/11.
China was one of the first major powers to support the US-led global war against terrorism by providing political, financial and material assistance to the US allies, partners, and friends in the UN. Once viewed in the US as a strategic competitor during the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, China suddenly became America’s “new friend” in the fight against terrorism. In the Pivot to Asia strategy of the Barack Obama Administration, the US regarded China as a global partner in combating international terrorism.
It is therefore very unfortunate to see US-China relations deteriorating under the Donald Trump Administration. The power rivalry between the US and China is currently escalating with the growing security tensions in the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea; the ongoing trillion-dollar trade war leading to mutual diplomatic skirmishes; the conflicts over the international reach of Huawei, Tiktok and WeChat; the impact of the Hong Kong National Security Law, and most recently, and concern for the fate of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang arising from the Disney live action movie, Mulan.
While the risk of armed confrontations between the US and China is getting higher because of the aforementioned conflicts, prospects for peace between the two major powers will be even higher if both powers can sit together to establish consensus on issues where they can work together in pursuit of common interests.
Counterterrorism is one such area. If the US and China can sustain their counterterrorism cooperation in the post-pandemic period, both powers can rebuild confidence and strengthen strategic trust, which are essential to prevent armed conflicts between them.
Henry Kissinger once said that if the US and China would be in conflict, the world would be divided. Countering terrorism 19 years after 9/11 has demonstrated that the US and China can still cooperate in order to build a more stable and peaceful world. Counterterrorism cooperation provides great opportunities for the US and China to be friends in the preservation of international peace and security. If the US and China are at peace, the whole world will also be at peace. The Philippines will benefit enormously from the peace dividends arising from the cooperation of these two major powers.
The ratification of Republic Act (RA) No. 11054, otherwise known as the “Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” (OLBARMM) or simply the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in the 21 January and 6 February 2019 plebiscites signifies the cessation of armed conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and armed forces of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). It took 22 years of on-and-off peace negotiations between the MILF and GRP, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and displacing millions of people in Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao, before the GRP forged a final peace agreement, also known as the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), in 2014 with the MILF under then President Benigno Aquino III.
After more than four (4) decades of engagement in war and peace with the state, negotiating with six (6) presidents, the MILF now has the opportunity to govern an expanded Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) initially through the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). As a transition government, the BTA governs the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) for three (3) years until the members of the BARMM’s parliamentary government are elected in May 2022. Headed by MILF’s Chair, Al Hajj Murad Ebrahim, as Interim Chief Minister, the BTA shall have 80 members.
In as much as the issue of participation is one of the key elements in good governance, the BTA faces a huge challenge to enjoining the maximum participation of the key actors in the Bangsamoro movement especially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and other splintered groups which advanced the political autonomy movement in different forms. Aside from the major Muslim organizations, the BTA has the task to unite and draw the involvement of the 13 ethnolinguistic Muslim communities in the region.
The innate tribal divisions and rivalries among the Bangsamoros need to be substantially reduced, hence transforming conflict into a cooperative arrangement that will eventually build the Bangsa Moro (Moro Nation). Given the diversity of the region, the BTA has to be prepared in addressing the multi-faceted issues, concerns, and problems not only of the Muslim population but also of the non-Muslim, non-Christian indigenous groups (commonly referred to as the Lumads), as well as Christian communities in the region.
Against this backdrop, this short piece examines the key concerns and challenges confronting ethnopolitics of the Bangsamoro in relation to its task in furthering parliamentary democracy.
The term “Bangsamoro” translates to “Moro Nation.” “Bangsa” or “bansa” is a Malay word that usually denotes nations, castes, descent groups or lines, races or estates, while “moro” was originally applied to the Moors that ruled the Iberian Peninsula and the northern coast of the African continent in 711 A.D. When the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, they encountered ferocious resistance from Muslims. This reminded them of their ancient enemy, the Moors.
The collective term, “Bangsamoro” as defined by the BOL (Art. 2, sec. 1) applies to at least 13 Islamized ethnolinguistic groups as well as non-Muslim (Moro) indigenous peoples, estimated to be more than 25 distinct ethnic groups, and Christians who have identified themselves as Bangsamoro living in Mindanao, parts of Palawan, Sulu archipelago, and other geographical areas as defined in Article 3 of the BOL. Table 1 below shows the estimated population of Bangsamoros’ ethnolinguistic groups inhabiting in the Moroland.
Table 1 Bangsamoro Ethnolinguistic Groups and Estimated Population
Major Ethnic Group
Estimated Population at 1.7% growth rate*
Percentage share to Total
Source: Philippine Statistics Authority 2010 Census of Population and Housing. *Annualised population growth rate between the years 2010–2015 was 1.7% as estimated by the Philippine Statistics Authority
The diversity of the region nevertheless is not squarely divided between ethnic groups. It is dominated by three (3) major ethnic groups – Maranao, Tausug, and Maguindanao. Together, they comprise over 70% of the Bangsamoros. The Moro armed independence movement likewise had been historically divided by two (2) major groups, the MNLF and MILF, which have been generally composed of the Tausugs and Sama/Samal on the one hand, and Maguindanaoan and Maranao on the other hand, respectively. Collectively, they constitute nearly 80% of all Bangsamoros.
Governing a multi-ethnic society as a nation
Moros’s sense of oneness and belongingness as a people have to be intensified and heightened by the regional government as the inalienable right to rule as self-governing political entity in a piece of land which they claim as their homeland irrespective of ethnic affinities and cultural differences, and ideologies embodied with the right to self-determination. The quest of Bangsamoros to exercise their right to self-rule is hinged on the continued definition and re-definition of their identity as a people by virtue of history, culture, religion, and way-of-life.
Tackling issues of poverty, inequalities and injustices, socio-cultural conflicts, and whole range of development concerns in the region necessitates a broad and systematic functioning of governmental and non-governmental organizations and institutions. The transformation of poverty-stricken and violence-ridden environment to a prosperous and peaceful society is not the sole responsibility of the regional government but also of civil society and non-governmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs), private sector, academe, and other stakeholders. It is a collective responsibility.
Governance needs to be interactive. Collaborative patterns that emerge from governing socio-economic, political and administrative activities with non-state actors are sine qua non in safeguarding civil society’s sovereignty, peoples’ power, and authority of the governed over their elected officials. This co-operating and shared process does not only broaden institutional pluralism but also strengthen the centrifugal forces of social pluralism.
Party system and parliamentary democracy
Compared to the national government’s presidential form of government, the BARMM adopts a parliamentary form, yet remains under the unitary state. Unlike the former where there is a clear division of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, in the latter, there is a fusion of powers between the executive and the legislative (parliament) branches. Executive powers are democratically and legitimately derived from the parliament, thus executive officials are accountable to the parliament. Article 7 of the BOL defines broadly the powers, functions, and responsibilities of the Bangsamoro Government – Parliament, Executive Officers, and Administrative Organizations.
Under a parliamentary system of regional government, the party system becomes a paramount vehicle in articulating the fundamental interests, aspirations, and hopes of the constituents. Political parties are expected to be defined by their platform of government and policy agenda rather than bank simply on candidates’ personalities. Likewise, Art. 7, sec. 7 of the BOL stipulates the systems of election. For regional party representatives, it shall be through the proportional representation (PR) system which tend to lead to the proliferation of smaller parties and consequently improve the representation of minority groups. On the other hand, district representatives shall be elected by plurality which tend to lead to the creation of fewer parties.
Issues and challenges
The politics of ethnicity and new form of parliamentary government in the region is faced with daunting but surmountable challenges toward the fulfillment of the Bangsamoros’ aspiration to self-governance.
One, the effectiveness of the combined PR and plurality electoral systems at the regional and district levels respectively is contingent primarily, among others, on how the BTA creates the legislative districts and the criteria adopted for such creation. Currently, the process in the “redistricting, merging, or creation of parliamentary districts” as provided in Sec. 10, Art. 7 of the BOL is in progress.
Moreover, the hybrid electoral system needs to satiate the requisites of ethnic autonomy of major ethnic groups which have some relatively well-defined physical jurisdiction on the one hand, and self-governance interest of other minority ethnic and indigenous peoples (IPs) which have smaller “homelands.” Whether or not such rudiments are satisfied would depend on the identification or representativeness of the political party to its constituents, a form of social identity, and voting behaviour of the district’s electorates.
In as much as the PR system encourages the participation of more electoral parties representing ethnic or sectoral interest while the plurality system fosters cross-ethnic conciliation and limits political parties, the determination of the balance between the two (2) electoral systems is significant in adapting it to the changing demographic and ethnic profile of the region and in inhibiting dominant groups from unduly tilting the balance power towards their favour.
Two, given that ethnic groups are territorially defined, the three (3) major ones – Maranao (Lanao del Sur), Maguindanaoans (Maguindanao), and Tausug (Sulu and Basilan) – may likely be the foremost regional contenders in BARMM politics while other non-Islamized IPs and Christian communities may be perpetually marginalized as they will never become the majority. Apparently, this threatens plural democracy and may instead tend to institutionalize the so-called “tyranny of the majority.”
Third, the standards that need to be met for regional party registration have yet to be defined. In addition, the mode of electing local government officials (LGOs) whether using the PR or plurality system has to be determined by the BTA. Given the peculiarities of the region in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, and voting behaviour, political parties have to be politically astute in advancing parliamentary democracy. On a similar vein, the mode of electing LGOs has to conform with the idiosyncrasies of the local population.
The challenges of nation-building and national unity through the BOL is difficult to surmise at this point, although the socio-economic and political initiatives in re-constructing the war-ravaged region have been moving in the right direction through its parliamentary government.
There will be no quick fixes and no shortcuts. Wounds that have festered for a long time cannot be healed overnight, nor can confidence be built or dialogue developed while fresh wounds are being inflicted. It is a process that requires special and extra effort on the part of the state to guarantee human rights and uphold the rights of people to their own development.
Hopes are high that the Bangsamoro succeeds in its endeavour to re-build its Bangsa that stands proud within the Philippine nation-state.
Rizal G. Buendia, PhD is an Independent Political Analyst and Consultant in Southeast Asian Politics and International Development based in the United Kingdom. He is the former Chair and Associate Professor of the Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila, and Teaching Fellow in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies and Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
He earned his PhD in Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Master of Arts (with Distinction) in Public Administration at the National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG), University of1 the Philippines-Diliman Q.C.
This piece originally appeared in AccessBangsamoro on 24 August 2020. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Access Bangsamoro, its proponents, or affiliates.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the whole world, China and the United State are currently involved in a worsening security tension in the South China Sea. China-US relation has reached its lowest moment since the normalization of their bilateral ties in 1979.
The US has presently hardened its approach in the South China Sea by intensifying its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), conducting more military exercises, and explicitly demanding China to abide by the 2016 tribunal decision in the area. China, on the other hand, is also strengthening its position by vigorously asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea through increased maritime patrols and infrastructure developments.
Because of China-US conflict in the South China Sea, there is a growing fear that a cold war is already emerging between the two powers. This situation can inevitably risk the world to be divided again that is reminiscent of the bitter cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union right after the Second World War.
In fact, global anxieties are already rising about the possibility of having the Third World War as both powers are flexing their strong military muscles by sending their warships not only in the South China Sea but also in other waters surrounding China. To defy China’s position, the US continues to deploy its warships around strategic waters that can contain Beijing: South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Straits.
On 19 August 2020, for example, the US deployed its missile destroyer, the USS Mustin, to conduct FONOPs in the Taiwan Strait in order to deliver a strong message against China’s recent actions in the area. The USS Mustin is the seventh American ship this year to sail through the Taiwan Strait.
On 4 July 2020 during the commemoration of American Independence Day, two American aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, conducted military drills in the South China Sea as part of its commitment of “standing up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”. China regards all recent US military activities in the South China Sea as provocations.
China and the US are bound to collide in the South China Sea if they remain intransigent in their positions.
Thus, both powers need to soften their current approaches in the South China Sea if a deescalation of their tensions is warranted. China and the US need to exercise self-restraints and settle their differences to calm the overall situation in the South China Sea and to maintain international peace and security. As President Xi Jingping emphasized as early as 2014, China and the US have more to gain from cooperation and more to lose from confrontation.
Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, wrote on 7 August 2020 that China and the US fighting against each other would spell great disaster not only against each other but also to the rest of the world. It is therefore imperative for both powers to deescalate their current conflicts in order to maintain world peace. As Dr. Henry Kissinger exclaims years ago, the world will be divided if China and the US are in conflict.
Though it takes two to tango, China can choose to dance in a different tune by pursuing peaceful unilateral actions that can avoid US “provocations” and encourage the US to opt for constructive and non-provocative measures like dialogues, consultations, and negotiations. Towards this end, China can unilaterally open its channels of communications with the US in order to rebuild trust and confidence necessary for the enduring peace in the South China Sea.
China needs to commit itself for a peaceful engagement with the US to avoid war and prevent violent conflicts between them. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored in an interview, China needs to remain “committed to peaceful development and to pursuing an opening-up strategy of mutual benefit. China will continue to promote global peace and development and uphold the international order.”
Peaceful management of conflicts in the South China Sea rests on the decisive affirmative actions taken not only by claimants and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but also by the joint actions of China and the US. This is the time for China to show its strong willed leadership in promoting peace, security and stability in the South China Sea by unilaterally pursuing practical measures that can deescalate tensions and prevent the risk of accidents and misunderstandings with the US.
One Chinese proverb says, “He that knows patience knows peace”. Though feeling provoked by the US, China can take the moral high ground by being patient and kind under the worsening situation. Chinese patience is needed to deescalate the current tensions in the South China Sea. Patience is a long-tested civilizational virtue that China can currently embrace in order to effectively lead the whole world in pursuit of a shared community of future for humankind.
Rommel C. Banlaoi has a PhD in International Relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China. He is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).
Photo Credit: Littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth conducts routine patrols in international waters of South China Sea near Spratly Islands as People’s Liberation Army Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sails close behind. (U.S. Navy/Conor Minto) as used in Eurasia Review.
On 3 August, President Duterte issued a directive disallowing the Philippines from joining naval/maritime exercises and drills of other countries like the United States (US) in the South China Sea (SCS) to reduce tensions in the disputed waters. The US along with its allies like Australia and Japan has recently been conducting joint maritime exercises in the SCS.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, “President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores. We cannot exercise with them in the South China Sea. If one country’s action is considered as belligerent, another tension will normally rise, so I hope that all the parties in this exercise will work on their actions there, to exercise prudence and carefulness so that there will be no miscalculations that could further increase the tension.”
Furthermore, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque in a virtual Palace briefing on 4 August said that Duterte’s independent foreign policy stands: “The Philippines is a friend to all, an enemy to none.”
The Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI), a think tank based in Manila, has a similar take on this issue. It asserts that the entry of American, Australian, and Japanese battleships and frigates into the SCS can be likened to a return to the colonial period of the powers that dismembered China, where any “accident,” possibly deliberate ones, or incidents or miscommunications can happen in the SCS.
With the Philippines having no control of US warships crossing her territorial waters, and even with the Philippine president not allowed to inspect the US facilities, any involvement of the Philippines in any military exercises in the SCS, definitely means placing the Philippines in the crossfire. Duterte’s independent foreign policy would seem to be the best position for the Philippines rather than endanger the lives of countless Filipinos, like the millions lost during World War 2.
Duterte’s decision of disallowing the Philippines from participating in the naval exercise with the US and its allies beyond its national waters is against the backdrop of rising tensions and the ostensibly cold war atmosphere between China and the US, of which the potential military confrontation between the two superpowers is on the horizon. In any case, if the relationship between the two superpowers continues to go downhill in the coming months, then the battleground of the impending “cold” to “hot” war between China and the US would be the SCS.
US-China Rising Tensions
The looming cold war and conflicted relationship between the US and China, have their roots in the: (a) on-going trade and technology warfare between the two superpowers; (b) the Hong Kong predicament; (c) the “blame-game” over the novel coronavirus pandemic; (d) increased strategic positioning and competition between China and the US in the SCS; and (e) the recent freedom of navigation and naval exercises in the SCS by the US together with its allies Japan and Australia.
Likewise, the US declaration of China’s claim in the SCS as unlawful on 13 July was also a huge contributing factor that further heightened tensions between the two nations.
In the past, the US only concerned itself on issues related to the defense of freedom of navigation in the SCS. But it has now rejected the legal validity of China’s maritime claims in the SCS, while projecting a posture that it is now somewhat aligned with Southeast Asian countries (i.e. the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia) that have competing maritime claims with China in the SCS.
However, for the US to declare China’s maritime claims in the SCS unlawful is quite hypocritical and duplicitous because, for one, it has never ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The visit of Alex Azar, US Health and Human Services Secretary as the head of a delegation visiting Taiwan in the coming days has further muddied the waters. If in any case, the said visit pushes through, this is thus far the highest-level US official visit to Taiwan since 1979. Azar will be the highest-ranking Cabinet member to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. He is also the first senior official to visit Taiwan since President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law in 2018.
China of course has protested and is very much opposed to such official interactions between the US and Taiwan. Hence, many see this up-coming visit of a high-ranking US official to Taiwan as an irritant and a provocation akin to the “salami strategy” (divide and conquer) on the part of the US. The Taiwan Strait is thus far one of the most sensitive issues for China-US relations. All these taken together have amplified the brewing feverish atmosphere and volatile situation in the SCS.
Naval Exercises In The SCS
As part of the US naval exercises, American warships have sailed into disputed waters. Washington has deployed two huge nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz to the SCS, along with their strike groups that include guided-missile cruisers and guided-missile destroyers. Around 10,000 naval personnel are on these aircraft carriers along with their complement of fixed-wing warplanes and helicopters. The warships were joined by allied naval units from both, Australia and Japan.
On 4 July, the US Navy’s Reagan and Nimitz carrier strike groups journeyed from the Philippine Sea to the South China Sea and held the first dual-carrier drills there since 2014. These aircraft carriers were seen transiting the SCS on 6 July.
In retaliation, the Chinese conducted naval exercises and parallel drills near the Chinese-administered Paracel Islands in the SCS, which ran from 1 to 5 July. China deployed an additional squadron of fighter-attack aircraft to the Paracel Islands in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The Chinese air force began deploying long-range bombers for aerial surveillance flights over these disputed areas.
Recently, Chinese bombers took part in a high-intensive exercise over the SCS weeks after two US aircraft carrier strike groups conducted drills of their own in the disputed waters. Both H-6G and H-6J bombers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were involved in the drills, which simulated night time take-offs, long-range raids, and attacks on sea targets. The PLA Southern Theatre Command also confirmed that a naval fleet of three frigates, the Liupanshui, Qujing, and Meizhou, took part in a drill in the SCS.
According to Ren Guoqiang, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, these exercises were part of the Chinese military’s regular operations to boost its combat readiness. Ren Guoqiang also stressed that China is determined to defend its sovereignty and security, and maintain peace and stability in the SCS despite US attempts to make waves in the region.
The heightened naval exercises in the SCS between the two world powers are an undisguised and overt flaunting of their military might and power. Both countries are playing “war games” in the SCS, which makes the disputed waters all the more unstable.
The rapid increase in the deployment of air, naval, and other military assets and hardware by both sides in the disputed waters, is further militarizing the SCS which raises the chance of accidental and even premeditated clashes between the two superpowers. These heightened naval exercises between the two military power blocs in the disputed waters has led to amplified exchanges of provocative military actions between the two giants.
This is while the rest of the world is pre-occupied and harried by the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. The situation in the SCS now more than ever is extremely tense and volatile. Any relatively minor untoward incident might spiral into a nuclear war between the two great powers of the 21st century.
One has to take cognizance of the fact that there is already a history of “near misses” between US and Chinese military ships and planes before. But last-minute decisions on both sides have circumvented these near clashes and military confrontations. However, at this time, we don’t know how all these “near misses” and “last-minute decisions” will play-out, given that the tides of geopolitics in the SCS seem stormy and unstable.
Nonetheless, any “near misses” between the two world powers must be avoided at all costs, and tension in the SCS must de-escalate or the world will find itself facing a nuclear war between China and the US at the expense of Southeast Asian nations. The lessons of World War I, more particularly illustrated that wars between great powers, including unintentional and accidental ones, are hardly ever concluded on a good note. They always end with the destruction of lives and nations. Hence, there are no victors in war, only losers.
Duterte’s decision not to join the SCS naval exercises with the US and its allies thus far is prudent and judicious. This only proves Duterte’s resolve and tenacity to deviate from the “colonial mentality” of being subservient to the US, veering away from being used as a pawn, a ragdoll in US hard-line policy, posture, and conflict with China, which if not tempered and moderated will only lead to horrendous misadventure and tragedy.
Chen Xiangmiao, an associate researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies on Hainan Island says that “as long as the rival claimants can exercise restraint and don’t take sides between China and the US, I think the risk of conflict can remain under control.”
As long as there are no maritime clashes between rival claimants in the SCS, the US will have no reason or justification whatsoever to step in and intervene, thus a direct military confrontation between China and the US can be avoided.
One must not forget that China is a rising contender in the contest for supremacy in the SCS, in Asia and around the globe, This reality is what the US has been trying to prevent for some time now by striding up and hastening its confrontation with China on all fronts.
**Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a researcher, academic and consultant on a wide array of issues. She is currently a Research Associate at PIPVTR. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs as a consultant. She is President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines.
In his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 27 July, President Rodrigo Duterte stated that, “Within ASEAN and beyond, the Philippines will continue to work with partners to address global perils and ramp up cooperation to secure for our peoples, greater peace, progress, and prosperity. The Filipino nation claims its rightful place in the community of sovereign states. Thus, we will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy.”
He further reiterated that “Alam mo (you know), I read a little over three weeks or last month that the Americans would, intend to go back to Subic. I will just put on record my thoughts. I have nothing against America, I have nothing against China but if you put bases here, you will double the spectacle of a most destructive thing just like Manila during the Second World War, during the retaking of this city. One of the most devastated cities in the world. Kaya maglagay-lagay ka ng base (If you will put bases) at this time, this will ensure if war breaks out because there would be atomic arsenals brought in, this will ensure the extinction of the Filipino race.”
Duterte was clear in his stand that he won’t allow the installation of military bases in the Philippines by the Americans, and he treats both, China and the United States (US) as friends, and intends to continue with his independent foreign policy. Under the Duterte administration, independent foreign policy is founded on fostering a broader and differentiated set of relationships solely based on Philippine national interests, designed to maximise the country’s autonomy, security, and prosperity.
Duterte also said during his SONA that he is not predisposed to war against China in asserting Philippine claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and he will pursue a more diplomatic posture and stance as he thinks the country is not prepared for war with China.
“We worked without fail to protect our rights in the South China Sea, neither beholden nor a pawn to anyone. We broadened the boundaries of Philippine diplomacy. We built productive ties with everyone willing to engage us based on equality and mutual respect. And, we redefined our relationships with our most important partners, placing the country in a far better position to advance our interests in an evolving regional order and emerging global problems,” he explained.
Duterte’s stand on the SCS, made both, local and international headlines. Many, most particularly the political opposition, reacted on the negative and construed it as an act of surrender and bowing down to China on the part of Duterte. These reactions are understandable and have their roots in The Hague tribunal ruling of 2016.
The Hague tribunal ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. Though China rejected the ruling as baseless and invalid, for many if not the majority of Filipinos, it was a decisive victory.
China’s rejection of the tribunal award coupled with some skirmishes in the SCS, generally impressed upon Filipinos the belief that China is indeed an “intimidator”, and is continuously encroaching on the sovereign claims of the Philippines in the SCS. This has largely triggered and infuriated Filipinos and instigated nationalist sentiments, that have led to negative perceptions and sentiments against China in the Philippines.
Furthermore, such foreboding is continuously being fuelled by the vilification of China by some political figures, some sectors of Philippine society, and by the mainstream media to a greater extent. This has resulted in intensified distrust and cynicism among Filipinos towards the “middle kingdom”. Filipinos have also witnessed China’s rise on the global stage with alarm and suspicion.
On the disputes over the SCS, the Philippines is asserting its territorial rights diplomatically and peacefully through negotiations and dialogues as opposed to aggressive and confrontational means. This was evidenced by the declaration of Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on 12 July during the commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the arbitral ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the SCS case as “non-negotiable.”
However, the next day (13 July), China rejected the appeal for compliance of the said tribunal award. China has always seen the tribunal ruling as invalid and illegal. Truth be told, not a single country, even the US or the Philippines for that matter can force or compel China to conform to the said tribunal decision other than by waging war. One has to take cognizance of the fact that, in the international arena, there’s no such thing as a “world government” with police power to impose such a ruling. That’s the reality of the matter.
This international situation has presented a choice between conflict (war), or cooperation (peace), which is the peaceful resolution of the SCS dispute through diplomacy and constructive engagement with China on the part of the Philippines. Duterte being a realist and a pragmatic actor, prefers cooperation for he sees this as the way towards economic stability and the survival of the country, especially now more than ever, given that the country’s war with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
While the Philippine government pursues a bilateral constructive engagement with China, asserting its territorial and maritime rights through diplomatic means, it also continuously works with ASEAN member states on the “China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). The COC is important for it seeks to manage inter-state relations within the SCS area and address disputes over territorial claims in the contested waters.
The COC is based on a 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and all 10 ASEAN member states. Multilateral regional settings like ASEAN are critical in dispute resolution for they have a strong norm-setting mechanism in institutionalising pleasant and amicable relations among geographically adjacent states. This institutional approach performs a complementary function to the bilateral talks and negotiations between China and the Philippines over the disputed CSC.
Hence, it is quite clear that the Philippine government stands its ground and is continuously asserting its rights in the SCS through various diplomatic means and settings. The position of the Philippines is thus far solid in its assertion of its territorial and maritime rights in the SCS. But the means to achieve these rights under the Duterte administration is through peaceful diplomacy and not aggression and confrontation.
Sino-Philippines Bilateral Relations
In terms of Philippines-China relations, the Philippines is forging deeper friendly and cooperative relations with China on issues and matters where there already exists mutual and cooperative understanding in areas where the two countries have no disputes or differences such as trade. This to some extent boosts the mutual trust and confidence between the two nations.
In as far as trade is concerned, China is fast becoming or already is the largest trading partner, the largest export market, and the largest source of imports and second-largest source of tourists of the Philippines. In 2018, bilateral trade between the two nations amounted to US$55 billion. In the same year (2018), China was the Philippines’ top investors with investments reaching US$980 million. In 2019, China was one of the major trading partners of the country with an export value of US$944.2 million.
China accounted for 23.1 percent of total imports in August 2019 for the Philippines. In December 2019, the Philippines and China signed six bilateral agreements, which covered infrastructure, trade, customs, and communications bolstering the inter-state relations of the two countries. Two of these bilateral agreements, which is crucial to the Philippines is the “Davao City Expressway Project” with an estimated cost of around US$478.5 million, and the “Panay-Guimaras-Negros (PGN) Island Bridge Project”, with a cost amounting to US$535 million.
The two countries even discussed the integration of the Duterte administration’s flagship “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. The alignment of these infrastructure initiatives will lead to greater opportunities for cooperation and collaboration and bring forth mutual economic benefits to both countries.
On 28 July, China promised that the Philippines will be prioritised once it comes up with a vaccine for the novel coronavirus to which the Duterte government is quite appreciative. Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has been extending help and assistance to the Philippines. Both countries stand together towards mutual assistance and cooperation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Rising Tensions Between China And US
With rising tensions and a growing cold war atmosphere between China and the US, the potential military confrontation between the two superpowers seems almost inevitable. On this note, one may find President Duterte’s recent declaration during his SONA somewhat wise, pragmatic, and rational. His realist and tactical stance of not “rocking the boat”, meaning not provoking China by asserting aggressively the Philippines’ sovereign claims on the SCS, and by not allowing the Americans to have military bases in the country, is probably a blessing in disguise and should not be misconstrued as “kowtow-ing” to China.
Any possible skirmishes between the Philippines and China over the SCS will just lead to the escalation of tension between the two superpowers. This is something dangerous and will put the country on the brink of war with either of the two military giants. The fact of the matter is, the theatre of conflict for the imminent cold war between China and the US is the SCS.
Hence, while the country is waging a war against the novel coronavirus pandemic, it cannot afford to fight a proxy war at the same time for either of the two power blocs. The Philippines, as much as possible, must avoid being dragged into this confrontation between the two hegemons by maintaining an independent foreign policy – a neutral and independent position in which the Philippines is a friend to all nations of the world – while pursuing its strategic national interests, not necessarily aligned with either China nor the US.
The Philippines should continue to assert ASEAN centrality, which means unity and solidarity with its immediate neighbour-countries in Southeast Asia. It should also continue to forge good relations with the rest of Asia.
The Philippines should continue to pursue good relations with “middle powers” like Russia, Japan, Brazil, India, the European Union (EU), and Australia, by exercising multilateralism and diplomacy as its primary weapons in international relations. It should continue consolidating its deterrence capacity by relying on its strength and capabilities as much as possible.
**Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a researcher, academic and consultant on a wide array of issues. She is currently a Research Associate at PIPVTR. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs as a consultant. She is President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist threats worldwide continue unabated. In fact, international terrorist groups are taking advantage of the pandemic to propagandize, recruit and mount violent attacks. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example, is currently experiencing a rapid resuscitation as the pandemic is providing the group the needed oxygen to recover. The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by the twin threats of terrorism and COVID-19 pandemic.
Terror Threats Persist Worldwide During the Pandemic
According to the Country Reports on Terrorism published by the Bureau of Counterterrorism of the US State Department in June 2020, dangerous terrorist threats persisted around the world. Though ISIS already lost some of its key leaders and major territories as a result of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the group has effectively adapted “to continue the fight from its affiliates around the globe and by inspiring followers to commit attacks”.
While the whole world is preoccupied overcoming the terrifying onslaught of COVID-19, ISIS is mounting a global resurgence. ISIS is exploiting the pandemic to ramp up attacks in areas where they still maintain significant followers beyond Iraq and Syria. ISIS even regards the coronavirus as the “soldier of Allah” that is part of the global jihad against the infidels.
Thus, the world at present faces two deadly pandemics: COVID-19 pandemics and the pandemics of terrorism. Both carry noxious viruses that are contagious, lethal, and virulent. Until now, we are still in search of an effective vaccine to halt these viruses from spreading fear and wreaking havoc to the whole of humanity.
The Philippines: COVID-19 Hotspot andEpicenter of Terror Threats in Southeast Asia
The Philippines is not spared from the threats of these twin pandemics. The Philippines has become the COVID-19 hotspot in Southeast Asia with close to 130,000 confirmed cases to date. The Philippines has almost doubled the infection rate in China, the ground zero of infections. The COVID-19 pandemic is providing ISIS followers in the Philippines the conducive environment to spread violent extremism and to sow terror while taking advantage of law enforcement authorities preoccupied in implementing quarantine measures to contain the spread of the disease.
Since March 2020, ISIS followers in the Philippines have conducted around 700 violent attacks amidst the pandemic based on military intelligence reports. From 18 April to 12 June 2020 alone, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, the Philippine National Police (PNP) recorded 588 violent activities of ISIS followers in the country.
The most devastating attack, so far, was on 17 April 2020 when the ASG killed eleven and wounded 14 soldiers of the Philippine Army in a firefight in Patikul, Sulu. The ASG ambushed the Philippine soldiers while they were conducting their hot pursuit operations against followers of Radullan Sahiron and Hatib Sawadjaan, two top ASG leaders in Sulu.
The Philippines has, therefore, become the epicenter of ISIS terror threat in Southeast Asia. The Global Terrorism Index listed the Philippines as the only country in Southeast Asia belonging to the top-10 countries in the world most impacted by terrorism in its report in 2019. It is very likely for the Philippines to be listed again as one of the countries most impacted by terrorism in 2020 with the persistence of terrorist activities in the Philippines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rise of Suicide Terrorism in the Philippines
The face of terrorism in the Philippines has become more perilous with the rise of suicide terrorism. Three years after the Marawi siege, the Philippines suffered the following suicide terrorist attacks, so far:
Lamitan City suicide bombing involving a German national with a Moroccan descent (31 July 2018)
Jolo Cathedral suicide bombing involving Indonesian couple (27 January 2019)
Indanan, Sulu suicide bombing involving a Filipino (28 June 2019)
Indanan, Sulu female suicide bombing involving an Egyptian national (8 September 2019)
On 5 November 2019, the Philippine military foiled an attempted suicide bombing in Sulu when troops killed in action two Egyptian nationals in Jolo. The Philippine police, on the other hand, foiled another planned suicide terrorist attack in Metro Manila when agents killed four operatives of the Abu Sayyaf Group in their safe house in Parañaque City on 26 June 2020. The shooting incident involving military and police operatives in Jolo on 29 June 2020 was related to a military mission to run after female suicide bombers.
The rise of suicide terrorism in the Philippines arises from the contagious effect of the ideology of violent extremism propagated by ISIS foreign terrorist fighters in the country. ISIS foreign terrorist fighters capitalize on local grievances, historical animosities, and feeling of injustices to propagate violent extremism in the Philippines, particularly in conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. Violent extremism is the ideology that justifies acts of terrorism in the Philippines.
Where are the Threats of Violent Extremism and Terrorism in the Philippines Coming From?
During the pandemic, there are at least six active pro-ISIS terrorist groups operating in the Philippines: the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Turaipe Group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Abu Zacaria Group (AZG), the Nilong Group, the Salahuddin Group, and Suyuful Khilafa Fi-Luzon. All these groups belong to an umbrella organization described by the Philippine military as Daula Islamiya Philippines (DI-P) or Islamic State Philippines (ISP), which is the main base of the ISIS East Asia Wilaya or the Islamic State East Asia (ISEA) more known by followers as Wilayah Sharq Asia. Supporting these groups are foreign terrorist fighters coming largely from Indonesia and Malaysia but with significant personalities coming also from the Arab world, North Africa and Europe.
Abu Sayyaf Group
There are three known major factions of the ASG. Two of these factions are in Sulu. One is headed by Hatib Sawadjaan while the other one is headed by Radullan Sahiron.
Sawadjaan is a pro-ISIS leader known to be the de-facto Amir of DI-P or Daula Islamiya Alfalabin. He pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. The Philippine military calls his group as Daula Islamiya Sawadjaan Group (DI-WG) with around 300 regular armed followers operating in Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and even Sabah. DI-SG is responsible for a series of suicide bombings in Sulu and kidnapping activities in Sabah.
Sahiron is not a pro-ISIS leader. He used to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda being one of the original founders of the ASG then under the leadership of Abdurajak Janjalani. Sahiron continues to be in the list of most wanted terrorists by the US State Department. But Sahiron slows down his violent activities during the rise of ISIS having been overshadowed by his erstwhile lieutenant, the late Isnilon Hapilon who became the leader of Daula Islamiya Wilayatul Mashriq (Islamic State Province in East Asia) responsible for the 2017 Marawi Siege. Sahiron continues to have around 50 armed followers operating mainly in his little kingdom in Patikul, Sulu.
Sahiron developed an adversarial attitude towards ISIS having suffered near-death experiences with Al-Qaeda operatives in Mindanao. Thus, he refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
Another faction of the ASG is based in Basilan now headed by Furuji Indama who pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. He is a pro-ISIS leader who used to be the number two man of Hapilon who pledged allegiance to ISIS twice: in 2014 and 2016.
Indama has around 20 regular armed followers in Basilan with support network operating in Zamboanga City and Zamboanga Peninsula, particularly in Zamboanga Sibugay. Being a pro-ISIS leader, Indama also provides tactical support to the activities of Sawadjaan.
The Turaipe Group refers to the faction of the BIFF headed by by Esmael Abdulmalik (Alias Commander Turaipe/Turaifie). He pledged allegiance to IS in April 2017 just a month before the Marawi Siege. Commander Turaipe formed his own pro-IS group called Jama’ahtul Mujahirin Wal Ansar (JMWA) based largely in Datu Salibo town of Maguindanao.
After the Marawi Siege, Commander Turaipe continued his armed activities in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato through ambuscades, roadside bombings, liquidations, and harassments on behalf of ISIS. Commander Turaipe even renamed his group as Daulah Islamiya Maguindanaw (DIM) or the Islamic State of Maguindanao, a pro-ISIS group responsible for most of the violent attacks in Maguindanao three years after the Marawi siege. The military calls his group as DI-Turaipe Group with more than 80 armed followers.
The Zacaria Group refers to remnants of the Maute Group. It is presently led by Commander Ker Mimbantas who is also known as Commander Zacaria or Commander Omar. He was one of the officers of the Maute Group, also known as the Daula Islamiya Ranao or the Islamic State of Lanao.
Commander Zacaria has around 40 armed followers operating mostly in Lanao del Sur and Marawi City. He used to work with the Maute brothers (Abdullah and Omarkayam) and Abu Dar. When these leaders died, he rose to prominence being the nephew of the late Alim Abdul Azis Mimbantas, the former Vice Chairman for Military Affairs of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The military calls the Zacaria Group as the Daula Islamiya Zacaria Group (DI-ZG).
The Nilong Group represents the remnants of the Ansar Khilafa Philippines (AKP) then led by Mohammad Jaafar Maguid more known as Commander Tokboy. The group is being led by a certain Jeoffrey Nilong, alias Commander Momoy believed to be holding his makeshift camp in Polomolok, South Cotabato. The military calls this shadowy group as Daula Islamiya Nilong Group (DI-NG) with only around 10 followers operating mainly in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani and General Santos of the Southern Philippines. The group was responsible for the bombing in General Santos in September 2018.
The Salahuddin Group is being led by Hassan Salahuddin, the first leader who pledged allegiance to the new ISIS Caliph, Al-Qurashi, on 11 November 2019. Salahuddin used to be a member of the Al Khobar Group (AKG), the Special Operation Group (SOG) of the MILF in the 1990s. The AKG was responsible for a series of extortion activities in Mindanao cities of Tacurong, Kidapawan, Koronadal and General Santos using skills in bomb making.
Salahuddin developed his skills in bomb making through his mentors, Basit Usman and Marwan (Zulkipli bin Hir) who were targets of Mamasapano clash on 25 January 2015. When Basit Usman organized the Al Khilafa Sarangani in 2012, Salahuddin joined him to conduct training on bomb making with pro-ISIS followers in Central Mindanao. When Basit Usman died on 3 May 2015 in a military encounter, Salahuddin joined the BIFF-Turaipe Group in order to establish the Daula Islamiya Maguindanao.
With the support of BIFF-Turaipe Group, Salahuddin masterminded the Isulan, Sultan Kudarat bombings on 28 August 2018 and 2 September 2018. DI-SG also coddles foreign terrorist fighters through the assistance of a long-time friend, Mauwiya, a Singaporean follower of Jemaah Islamiya. Mauwiya has been operating in Central Mindanao since the 1990s.
The military calls the Salahuddin Group as Daula Islamiya Salahuddin Group (DI-SG) with around 10 followers trained in bomb making. The group is operating mainly in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat provinces.
Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon
The Suyuful Khilafa Fi Luzon (SKFL) or the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Luzon operates mainly in Luzon, particularly in the National Capital Region (NCR), Ilocos Region and Bicol Region. Composed mostly of Muslim converts, the SKFL evolved from Jamal Al Tawhid Wal Jihad (JTJ) Philippines whose members pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. Members of JTJ Philippines were followers of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi who founded the JTJ in Iraq that became known as the Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After the death of Osama bin Laden, Al Zargawi reorganized the JTJ as the Islamic State in Iraq, the forerunner of the present day ISIS.
The SKFL cooperates with pro-ISIS groups operating in the NCR. The SKFL was responsible for several bomb threats and foiled bombing activities in Metro Manila during the Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2017 and the Summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in November 2016 as well as the visit to Manila of Pope Francis in January 2015. The SKFL was also responsible for several bomb threats in Northern Luzon in November 2019 threatening to attack Catholic churches.
Though based in Luzon, the SKFL also operates in Southern Visayas and Northern Mindanao by penetrating Muslim converts or Balik Islam communities in these areas. However, the military only identifies more than ten active operatives of the SKFL pursuing violent activities.
Foreign Terrorist Fighters
Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) operating in the Philippines are foreign operatives of ISIS planning and conducting violent activities in the country, particularly in Mindanao. Intelligence estimates in 2018 indicated close to 100 pro-IS FTFs in the Philippines. But intelligence estimates at the end of 2019 downgraded the figure to 59 “watch-listed” and 7 under hot-pursuit FTFs. During the Marawi liberation; the AFP identified 32 dead bodies of FTFs from the ground zero.
Most FTFs coming to the Philippines were from Indonesia and Malaysia while others came from the Arab World, particularly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. From the 59 “watch-listed” FTFs, some are suspected to be coming from Europe, North Africa, and even from Xinjiang Province of China.
FTFs come to the Philippines to facilitate transfer of funds and weapons to local supporters, to conduct violent extremist propaganda activities, and to transfer skills in religious jihad. FTFs also regard the Philippines as an alternative home base, a new land of jihad, and a very excellent sanctuary or safe haven because of domestic Muslim resistance, weak law enforcement, and very porous borders. More importantly, their local counterparts welcome the entry of FTFs despite their recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria.
FTFs can enter the Philippines through several backdoors from Sabah covering the maritime borders of the Philippines and Malaysia and from Manado covering the maritime borders of the Philippines and Indonesia. But most of the FTFs have entered the Philippines through normal immigration process at the Philippine airports using budget airlines.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, threats of violent extremism and terrorism in the Philippines persist through the continuing activities of ISIS followers operating in the country. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the entry of FTFs to the Philippines, those who are already in the country continue to spread the ideology of violent extremism that encourages ISIS followers to commit various acts of terrorism, especially suicide terrorism.
Suicide terrorism is the current face of terror in the Philippines. ISIS is taking advantage of the pandemic to propagate the ideology of violent extremism and to support acts of terrorism in the Philippines by funding, training, and mobilizing pro-ISIS groups in the country.
In short, the Philippines is confronting the challenges of the twin pandemics from COVID-19 and ISIS. Overcoming these challenges needs an innovative countermeasure that is dynamic, comprehensive, holistic, inclusive and lawful.
*This paper was originally prepared for presentation at the Online Seminar Workshop on Conflict Monitoring and Research Methodologies for Population-Based Studies About Conflict, Terrorism and Peace and Development Initiatives organized by the Western Mindanao State University, Zamboanga City on 10 August 2020. Also published in Eurasia Review and FBI Forum.
Photo Credit: Google Images
Bureau of Counterterrorism,Country Reports on Terrorism (Washington DC: US State Department, June 2020), p. 2.
3. Joseph Hincks, “With the World Busy Fighting COVID-19, Could ISIS Mount A Resurgence?”, Time, 29 April 2020.
9. Peter Chalk, “The Islamic State in the Philippines: A Looming Shadow in Southeast Asia?”, CTC Sentinel, Vol. 8, Issue No. 2, March 2016.
10. Rommel C. Banlaoi, Al-Harakatul Al=Islamiyyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group, Terrorism in the Philippines from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, 4th Edition (Quezon City: Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, 2019).
11. Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), “BIFF/ISEA Unit Jamaah Mohajirin Wal Ansar”, 16 September 2018.
12. “Nilong Group Tagged behind GenSan Blast,” Mindanews, 19 September 2018.
Petitions against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 have been piling up at the Supreme Court.
Earlier, many of the petitioners and other like-minded people have been engaged in vigorous discussions in various fora, on social media and even in a few protests to air their fears and concerns. These activities offer evidence that free speech and democracy is alive and well in the Philippines.
While we respect the right of all people to form an opinion on the anti-terror law, we cannot help but notice that the arguments against that controversial legislation seem incongruent with what it actually says. In some cases, the arguments are illogical.
The theme of this event is quite apt as we are meeting under very different circumstances. However, it is important that we adapt and adjust so that we may overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19 to the whole of humanity.
The current pandemic has unfortunately affected the pace of our bilateral cooperation to a certain degree but it has also opened a new dimension in the relations between the Philippines and China. Our two countries helped each other in the early days of the pandemic and continue to do so today. For the Philippines, we were among the first to send medical aid to the Chinese people, especially those affected in Wuhan. On the part of China, a medical team was sent and visited the country for two weeks providing useful advice to counterparts in the health field. China also donated PPEs, ventilators, and testing kits, among others. There were also more than 50 Philippines Air Force flights that flew over SCS to Xiamen, Quanzhou, Changsha, Shenzhen and Shanghai to pick up medical equipment and supplies. These were of great help to the Philippines and the Filipino people in the fight against COVID-19. This level of cooperation should continue, especially as the Philippines is currently experiencing a high number of cases after partially reopening its economy.
This year is an important one in Philippines-China relations as we commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Our two peoples have actually had a much longer history of contacts. The Filipino and Chinese people have been interacting, trading, and visiting one another for several centuries prior to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties. Many Filipinos have Chinese ancestry and can trace their roots back to the mainland.
This level of people-to-people exchange continues to this day. Prior to COVID-19 outbreak, China was the Philippines’ second largest tourist market and was on the verge of becoming number one. We have also had a notable increase in Chinese investments in the country, as the Philippines joined the Belt and Road Initiative, which dovetails with President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature initiative, known as the Build Build Build program. This program aims to improve and expand numerous infrastructure projects in the Philippines so as to spur economic development.
China has also been working with the Philippines on development issues as we both strive to achieve the 17 goals and 169 targets as listed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. China is one of our most important development partners and Philippines-China cooperation in this regard, is a very good example of South-South Cooperation.
In terms of trade, China has become our number one trading partner and this trend will likely continue. Regionally, ASEAN countries are looking forward to expanding the economic relationship with China and other trade partners via the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The potential of RCEP for global growth and trade is significant and could help fuel global economic growth once the effects of COVID-19 subside and the global economy rises from it.
It is my belief that Philippines-China relationship, elevated to the level of comprehensive strategic cooperation in 2018 after the State Visit of President Xi Jinping, will continue to develop and grow in spite of COVID-19. The economic and development partnership are important to both sides, especially as we both implement measures to restart our respective economies in the face of COVID-19.
The overall bilateral relationship is a positive one and there are many areas for cooperation and engagement that can be pursued. As in any relationship, however, there are a few differences. The West Philippines Sea is one such issue. There are contentious issues between the Philippines and China with regard to this matter, but there is a clear understanding between the two sides that the disputes are not the sum total of the Philippines-China relationship and should in no way be a hindrance to the continuing development of other areas in the bilateral relations. More importantly, there are mechanisms in place for the two sides to openly discuss and manage the differences, and continue to find solutions, as well as the way forward on this issue.
In closing, I wish to stress the positive overall status of the bilateral relationship between the Philippines and China. In spite of or maybe even because of the difficulties brought upon by COVID-19, our two countries will continue our constructive engagement as we strive to assist each other in order to ensure economic recovery and achieve our respective development goals, for the benefit of the Filipino and Chinese peoples.
I thank you for your kind attention and wish you a pleasant morning.
Remarks by on the Occasion of the Webinar organized by the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies and the Jinan University Center for Philippine Studieswith the theme, “Building Philippines-China Relations for the Future:China-Philippines Relations During COVID-19”, 0900H-1100H, 27 July 2020
*Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana is an award-winning journalist. He served as the Beijing bureau chief of ABC News. He won an Emmy award in the news and documentary category in 2000. In 2008, he was awarded by the Overseas Press Club of America for covering the massive China earthquake. Prior to his current post as Ambassador of the Philippines to China, he was the President of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies. He lived and worked in China until his retirement in 2010. He went back to China in 2016 as the Philippine ambassador until now.