Sunday, April 3, 2016

12 rifles seized in Compostela firefight

From the Sun Star-Davao (Apr 3): 12 rifles seized in Compostela firefight  

AUTHORITIES recovered a total of 12 high powered firearms (HPFA) after an encounter with the New People's Army (NPA) at Sitio Inupuan in Barangay Mainit, Nabunturan, Compostela Valley, Saturday morning.

A cadaver believed to be a casualty on the NPA side was also recovered in the area.

Soldiers belonging to the 25th Infantry Battalion (IB) and police personnel from the Compostela Valley Police Provincial Public Safety Company (CVPPSC) engaged in a firefight with some 20 NPA rebels from the Guerilla Front 27 under alias Lipi after they received report the latter's group was camping in the area.

After the 20-minute gunbattle, the NPA rebels managed to escape, leaving one of their dead members.

Firearms seized were eight M16 rifles, four AK47 rifles, seven improvised grenades, one ICOM radio, medical paraphernalia, and documents.

Lieutenant Colonel Ismael P. Mandanas Jr., commander of the 25th IB, in his statement, lauded the coordination made by the residents of the area by reporting the presence of the NPA rebels.

"The desire of the people in the community to get rid of the NPA rebels who conduct extortion activities, resulted to this decisive encounter," Mandanas said.

Mandanas said the vital information shared by the residents resulted for a faster response by the police and the army.

"This incident manifests what our collective effort can achieve in winning peace in our country," Mandanas said.

Colonel Macairog Alberto, commander of the 1001st Brigade, said the army and the police are still conducting pursuit operations against the fleeing rebels.

"This is a big blow to the communist group whose numbers are steadily diminishing due to our intensified operations," Alberto said.

NPA rebels capture 3 cops, 2 soldiers in Mindanao

From the Sun Star-Cagayan de Oro (Apr 3): NPA rebels capture 3 cops, 2 soldiers in Mindanao

THREE police officers and two soldiers are being held captive after the New People’s Army (NPA) rebels conducted 10 roadblocks in the provinces of Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, and Agusan del Norte, on Sunday, April 3.

In a statement issued by the NPA emailed to Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro, Sunday afternoon, the Maoist guerillas captured Senior Police Officer 1 (SPO1) Warren Hansol Coñales confiscating his .9mm pistol after they blocked the Sayre highway at Sitio Patulangan in Barangay Capitan Bayong in Impasug-ong town.

At the roadblock in Wao town in Lanao del Sur, the insurgents captured PO3 Edwin Panis Castor, assigned in Wao police station, together with retired police Orlando Maglipac Magamay who ws later released due to health consideration.

The rebels also captured SPO4 Rene Rombo during their checkpoint in Talisayan, Misamis Oriental. Rombo is assigned at Kinoguitan Misamis Oriental municipal police station.

Confiscated during the roadblock there were two .9 mm pistols and a .45 pistol while the rebels released SPO1 Gilbert Aguiman, after his child travelling with him begged to release Aguiman who is also suffering from an illness.

The insurgents also seized two members of the 23rd Infantry Battalion identified as Private First Class Glenn Austia and Private First Class Diven Abion Tawide during their checkpoint at Lower Olave, Buenavista town in Agusan del Norte.

The three police officers and two soldiers who are now under the custody of the different NPA units are being considered by the rebels as their Prisoners of War (POW).

Allan Juanito, spokesperson of NPA North Central Mindanao Region, said the simultaneous checkpoints were aimed at implementing the revolutionary policies on the conduct of the upcoming elections to achieve peaceful campaigns inside NPA territories.

Surki Alday Sereñas, spokesperson of Police Regional Office (PRO)-Northern Mindanao, said that the captives are being held as human shields by the rebels.
Talisayan and Impasug-ong towns are monitored as under Election Watchlist areas (Ewas) by the PNP and the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Sereñas said around 30 members of the NPA held each checkpoint that lasted about 20 minutes where motorists and passersby were held on queue and their belongings reportedly confiscated by the rebels.

“Mga 30 each area pero wala ta kabalo basin naa pay mga kauban nagtago. Specifically ilang gipanguha mga communication gadgets para siguro dili maka-contact,” Sereñas said.

Sereñas declined to give the names of the captured police to the press as their families must be informed first.

Public warned

Around 6 a.m., Sunday, the provincial road at KM 13, Santiago, Manolo Fortich, the rebels flagged down about 92 commuters on board 42 motorcycles, two pickup vehicles, two elf vehicles, a multicab, and a farm tractor and gave them leaflets about the elections containing the guidelines following the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) to avoid involving civilians should politicians campaigning inside guerilla zones violate the policies the revolutionary movement is implementing.

The NPA is warning the civilians to avoid mingling with the armed forces of the government in their homes, public places or in private vehicles; avoid boarding on military vehicles such as the 6x6 and hummer trucks, KM450, police patrol cars, among others, and avoid also joining in convoys of vehicles with military personnel during election campaigns and on the election day.

The 4th Infantry Division (4ID) spokesperson Captain Joe Patrick Martinez confirmed the roadblocks in Manolo Fortich and Talakag towns in Bukidnon.

In a statement issued by the 4ID, it said the NPA rebels were reportedly spreading leaflets related to elections threatening political candidates with armed guards.

“The NPA threat is plain coercion to push their extortion demands,” the statement furthered.

4ID Commander Major General Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said, “What the NPA did is plain kidnapping and it is a crime punishable by law. They shall be facing charges on kidnapping and illegal detention.”

The PNP and the military maintains on urging candidates not to give in to the demands of the NPA.

Police Stations in nearby areas have been ordered to conduct checkpoints while the military is pursuing the NPA guerillas involved in Sunday’s roadblocks.

NPA to candidates: Coordinate with us for 'smooth' campaigning

From Rappler (Apr 4): NPA to candidates: Coordinate with us for 'smooth' campaigning

The New People's Army sets up checkpoints in Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, and Agusan del Norte   

ELECTION WARNING. The National Democratic Front earlier told candidates they must pay to campaign in rebel-held areas. File photo by Edwin Espejo/Rappler

ELECTION WARNING. The National Democratic Front earlier told candidates they must pay to campaign in rebel-held areas. File photo by Edwin Espejo/Rappler

LANAO DEL NORTE, Philippines – At least 10 platoons of New People's Army (NPA) rebels set up checkpoints along national highways in Northern Mindanao on Sunday, April 3, with a little over a month to go before the elections.

Allan Juanito, spokesperson of the NPA-North Central Mindanao Regional Command, said that they established checkpoints in Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, and Agusan del Norte.

"For the conduct of smooth campaign in the territories, the candidates must coordinate with the NPA command in the area and they will be accompanied by revolutionaries in the conduct of their campaign," Juanito said.

The NPA also said candidates should be "truthful" and focus on key issues like hunger in the face of El Niño. (READ: How vulnerable is Mindanao to El Niño?)

Juanito added that motorists passing through the checkpoints were lectured about the "ills of the government" and given leaflets.

Back in December, the communist rebels already told candidates to set aside funds if they wish to campaign in rebel-held territories.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had earlier warned candidates against succumbing to the extortion activities of the NPA.

CIDG men nab BIFF special ops commander

From the Manila Bulletin (Apr 3): CIDG men nab BIFF special ops commander

Police have arrested a field commander of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF) who was facing a case of double murder during an operation in Cotabato City.

Director Victor Deona, head of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), said Zainudin Kawilan was collared in a joint police and military operation after tipsters informed authorities of his whereabouts.

“He is a field commander of the Special Operations Group of the BIFF,” said Deona, adding that Kawilan’s jobs included bombing and ambush attacks on police and soldiers.

Deona said the background check they conducted with the military revealed that Kawilan was on the military’s intelligence watch list for his involvement in previous bombing of vital installations and attacks on unsuspecting soldiers.
While most of the BIFF forces are concentrated in the far-flung areas of Central Mindanao, Kawilan reportedly frequents Cotabato City as he has been moonlighting as a hitman.

“We have reports that he is involved in gun-for-hire activities,” said Deona.

He, however, could not elaborate on the reason Kawilan’s most recent visit in Cotabato City that led authorities to finally nabbing him.

Eradicating kidnappings in Sulu Zone not easy: Sassrec director

From The Sun Daily (Apr 3): Eradicating kidnappings in Sulu Zone not easy: Sassrec director

KOTA KINABALU: Eradicating kidnappings and cross-border crimes in the Sulu Zone (Sulu Sea) and the waters off Malaysia is not an easy task, says University of Malaysia Sabah's Sabah Strategic and Security Research Centre (Sassrec) director, Dr Zaini Othman.

He said this was because criminal activities had already been taking place in the waters since the period of the Sulu sultanate and the Brunei empire, as the area was regarded as one of the main trade routes between the East and Europe.

"Historically, in the area known as the 'Sulu Zone', kidnappings are not something new. It was sort of a 'trade' in the era of the Sulu sultanate and Brunei empire, because the Sulu Zone is a trade region gathering merchants from China, Europe and others.

"If we look at it, we are dealing with a change in the behaviour of the kidnappers. They are also keeping pace with advances in technology, in line with the response taken by the authorities.

"When the authorities tighten their enforcement, they also take measures to circumvent these controls," he told Bernama today.

Zaini was commenting on the kidnapping of four Malaysians in the waters off Pulau Ligitan at 6.15pm on Friday.

Therefore, he said, any measure taken by the security forces would not wipe out kidnapping activities and other cross-border crimes by 100%, but rather bring it down to a minimal level.

For example, he said the establishment of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) had shown positive effects in curbing kidnapping activities in the waters off Sabah's east coast.

However, Zaini said, security agencies should not be contented with Esscom's achievements and instead, should continue to streamline methods that needed to be employed to ensure kidnapping activities were kept at bay.

On the eight armed kidnappers who abducted the four Malaysians but freed Indonesians and Myanmars, Zaini said this did not mean the kidnappers were only targeting Malaysians.

"I think the kidnappers don't choose (based on nationality). It is because of our close proximity to the Philippines. So, if they want to kidnap, they will kidnap victims who are easy to deal with, in terms of management.

"Of course, they will choose hostages who can make it easier for them to demand ransom after the kidnapping. This is their technique," he added.Bernama

Kidnap of M’sian sailors signals rising piracy threat in South Philippine waters

From Today (Apr 4): Kidnap of M’sian sailors signals rising piracy threat in South Philippine waters

Expert says men were likely abducted by a group working with the notorious Abu Sayyaf

The fate of four Malaysian sailors who were kidnapped off a tugboat remains unknown, with the authorities no closer to opening lines of communications with the kidnappers.

Sabah police chief Abdul Rashid Harun said yesterday that the authorities have not been contacted by the kidnappers. “There are no developments,” he said in a WhatsApp message.

The seizure of the four sailors on Friday night by eight armed men near Ligitan, a small island off the eastern coast of Sabah, was the latest in a series of kidnappings in the lawless waters and coastlines of the southern Philippines in the past year.
The four Malaysian men from Sarawak are Wong Teck Kang, 31, Wong Hung Sing, 34, Wong Teck Chii, 29, and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21.

They were part of a nine-member crew on a tugboat travelling from Manila to Malaysia, but the kidnappers released the other five, comprising Indonesians and Myanmarese.

The Malaysian government is reportedly contemplating suspending trade and movements of essential goods from the east coast of Sabah to the southern Philippines.

More than 18 foreign citizens are being held in the southern Philippines by kidnap-for-ransom groups pledging allegiance to Islamic State (IS), said the Philippine military.

A spokesman for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, Charles Jose, said yesterday that Manila was in the process of verifying the abduction. Colonel Restituto Padilla Junior, a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, also said yesterday that the military was working with Malaysian officials to investigate the incident.

On March 26, armed men in a speedboat kidnapped 10 Indonesian sailors from a tugboat near the same area of the south-western Philippines. The Indonesian police said later that the kidnappers had contacted the Indonesian owner of the vessel and made ransom demands.

Mr Marc Singer, a director with Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a risk mitigation firm that tracks insurgent groups in the Philippines, said both recent abductions were probably the work of a criminal organisation called the Muktadir group.

“The Muktadir family has been engaged in piracy, gunrunning and human trafficking in the waters off the southern Philippines for generations and in recent years, effectively served as subcontractors for the Abu Sayyaf group,” said Mr Singer, referring to a notorious militant organisation in the region.

The Muktadir group has the fastest speedboats in the area and often commits abductions and then hands over the victims to Abu Sayyaf, which handles ransom negotiations, said Mr Singer. Several members of the group have outstanding arrest warrants for kidnapping in the Philippines and Malaysia.

In September, Abu Sayyaf abducted two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipino from a resort in the southern Philippines. The group has released videos demanding ransom payments in return for the hostages’ release.
In the past year, Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to IS, but the Philippine military has said that the group does not receive direct support from the international terror organisation and operates more as a criminal gang than as ideologically driven rebels.

The Philippine government signed a preliminary peace deal in 2012 with the country’s largest Muslim insurgency group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but the deal did not include Abu Sayyaf and other smaller groups opposed to the agreement.

The peace deal was structured to increase investment and to channel tax revenue to the southern Philippines in order to reduce poverty, which government officials say helps rebel groups recruit fighters.

The peace deal, which President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines has said is one of his top priorities, has stalled in the country’s legislature and is not expected to be passed before Mr Aquino leaves office at the end of June.

Authorities arrest Abu Sayyaf member

From the Sun Star-Zamboanga (Apr 3): Authorities arrest Abu Sayyaf member

AUTHORITIES have arrested a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the vicinity of a shopping mall in San Jose Gusu village, Zamboanga City, the police reported Sunday.

Chief Superintendent Miguel Antonio Jr., Zamboanga Peninsula (Western Mindanao) police director, identified the arrested ASG member as Aldimar Sangkula, alias Abu Paab, a resident of Sitio Kapuk in the village of Upper Calarian.

Antonio said Sangkula was arrested during a law enforcement operation around 10:15 a.m. Saturday near a shopping mall San Jose Gusu.

Antonio said Sangkula has a standing warrant of arrest for seven counts of kidnapping and serious illegal detention. The warrant was issued by a court in Isabela City.

Sangkula was taken to the headquarters of Police Station 11 of the Zamboanga City Police Office for proper disposition, Antonio added.

The arrest came a day after joint police and military operatives nabbed a convicted ASG member in an east coast village of the city.

Arrested on Friday, April 1, was Toh Ventura Abdilla, alias Toh Abdulla Abdulla, a resident of the village of Landang Laum, Sacol Island.

Abdilla was nabbed around during a law enforcement operation in Campung Landang Laun Drive in the village of Arena Blanco.

Antonio said Regional Trial Court Branch 12 Judge Gregorio Dela Peña last January 18 sentenced Abdilla in absentia for a period of four years and two months for illegal possession of firearm and ammunition.

The arresting team recovered from Abdilla’s possession several subversive documents, one fragmentation grenade and a motorboat propeller.

The arrest of Sangkula and Abdilla came after Antonio ordered the intensified campaign against the ASG and wanted persons in Zamboanga Peninsula.

Army sargeant, NPA rebel wounded in Masbate market site clash

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 3): Army sargeant, NPA rebel wounded in Masbate market site clash

Buyers and sellers at the public market in Barangay Pating, Masbate City scampered to safety when two Philippine Army soldiers who belong to the Special Task Force Masbate and three suspected members of the New People's Army (NPA) Sparu unit encountered at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Wounded were Sgt. Rico S. Amaro, 34, and Roland F. Espineda, also known as Marvin Espineda, reportedly an NPA member.

Amaro and Cpl. Jason D. Cortes were buying provisions in the market when they met armed rebels Espineda, 26, Ronnie Barruga, 39, and Marvin R. Letada -- all residents of Barangay Lahong, San Fernando, Masbate.

The two groups exchanged fire, resulting in the wounding of Amaro and Espineda.

Masbate Ciy Police Station men immediately responded, leading to the arrest of escaping Barruga while Letada made good his escape.

The MCPS officers recovered one .45-caliber pistol with magazine loaded with two live bullets from Espineda and a fragmentation hand grenade from Barruga.

The also found four fired cartridges at the clash scene.

Amaro and Espineda are now recuperating at the Masbate Provincial Hospital.

Meanwhile, three armed men shot dead one Ricky Marinas, 30 and resident of Barangay Del Rosario, Pilar, Sorsogon, at about 9 p.m. Saturday in Barangay Cagbacong, an upland village in the southern part of Legazpi City where NPA rebels usually pass while going to Sorsogon province from Albay.

3 Japanese warships dock in Subic Bay for 3-day goodwill visit

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 3): 3 Japanese warships dock in Subic Bay for 3-day goodwill visit

Two Japanese destroyers and a training submarine arrived at the Alava Pier in Subic Bay Freeport on Sunday for a three-day goodwill visit.

Capt. Lued Lincuna, Philippine Navy (PN) spokesperson, said the Japanese submarine JS Oyashio (SS-511), along with two destroyer ships JS Ariake (DD-109) and JS Setogiri (DD-156), docked at 9 a.m.

JS Oyashio is commanded by Cmdr. Nishioka Tetsuo and represents the Training Submarine Division 1 of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

The unit is headed by Capt. Hiroaki Yoshino.

On the other hand, JS Ariake and JS Setogiri, skippered by Cmdr. Yoichi Kurozoe and Cmdr. Fumihito Takeshita, respectively, composed the JMSDF’s Destroyer Escort Division 15 headed by Capt. Haruhiko Morisita.

Representing PN flag-officer-in-command Vice Admiral Caesar Taccad, Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) deputy commander Capt. Samuel Z. Felix led the Filipino naval delegation in welcoming the crew of the Japanese warships.

A port briefing related to security and health was conducted aboard one of the visiting vessels.

JMSDF delegates are set to render a courtesy call on NETC head Rear Admiral Renan C. Suarez during the visit.

A series of confidence building activities between the visiting navy and their Filipino counterparts, particularly PN personnel assigned at NETC in Zambales, will be undertaken such as shipboard tour on board the Japanese ships, reception and goodwill games of football and basketball.

Lincuna said the visit is expected to enhance the already strong relationship between the PN and the JMSDF.

It is a demonstration of fostering commitment to the cooperation between the two nations which benefits regional peace and stability.

America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia

From The Diplomat (Apr 2): America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia

A look at the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative as it gets underway.

 America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia

Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo
On March 18, Amy Searight, the deputy secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, told reporters at the opening session of the U.S-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had submitted a notification to Congress as it prepares to roll out a new maritime capacity-building initiative for Southeast Asian states near the South China Sea (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”). With that notification, the United States will soon begin implementing the so-called Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) which was initially announced last June.

While U.S. defense officials have remained tight-lipped on the exact details of MSI with a congressional notification pending, its goal is to build regional capacity to address a range of maritime challenges – including China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea – through various means such as improving regional maritime domain awareness, expanding exercises, and leveraging senior-level engagements.

Even though MSI is significant both for the five main Southeast Asian states involved – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – and the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific more generally, it is also facing a number of challenges as it gets underway.


The essence of MSI – building ally and partner maritime capabilities – is not new. Even before the advent of this initiative, the Obama administration had accelerated U.S. maritime security assistance to Southeast Asian states as Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea became clear, with efforts such as helping the Philippines build its National Coast Watch Center; assisting Vietnam in constructing a coast guard training center; and bolstering the maritime surveillance and radar capabilities of Indonesia and Malaysia.

MSI is also just one of various sources of funding for U.S. maritime capacity-building efforts, from the general foreign military financing (FMF) program to pools of money under specific departments or bureaus. In December 2013, for example, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry announced expanded U.S. assistance for maritime capacity building of $32.5 million in FMF for Southeast Asian states. Also in December that year, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs designated $25 million to develop the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Law Enforcement Initiative (MLE). MSI, by contrast, is funded with DoD money.

The most distinguishing component of MSI relative to other capacity-building initiatives of its ilk, those familiar with the initiative say, is its focus on enhancing regional maritime domain awareness (MDA) and moving towards establishing a common operating picture (COP). Put simply, Washington is working with Southeast Asian states to improve their ability to detect, understand, react to, and share information about air and maritime activity in the South China Sea, eventually leading to a common and regularly updated picture so that the nations concerned are on the same page.

Specifics about how MSI aims to do this or what kind of investments will be made this year have yet to be revealed publicly because DoD’s congressional notification is still being reviewed, defense department spokesman William R. Urban said in response to a detailed inquiry. But one source with intimate knowledge of the initiative, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat in an interview that, broadly, U.S. officials are thinking about how investments can increase the ability of allies and partners to “sense, share and contribute” in the maritime domain.

Speaking generally due to the sensitivity of the issue, the source said that more advanced intelligence, surveillance and radar (ISR) capabilities might enhance ‘sensing’ of allies and partners in the South China Sea; technical “supporting infrastructure” would facilitate ‘sharing’ maritime information across the region to build a COP; and expanded exercises, training and other engagements would lead to more ‘contributing’ from allies and partners. MSI is more about equipment, supplies, training and small-scale construction that fit within this broad approach, rather than hardware.

“What you hear is improving the ability of allies and partners to sense, share and contribute,” the source said.

How exactly this might work is still unclear. The “big picture,” the source said, would be to work towards a COP in the South China Sea starting with the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center and out onto the rest of the region, with willing countries as initial connective nodes eventually leading to a network that actors can “plug into.” (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat“).

“This is more about building a system, a network where countries can plug in if they want to,” the source said, stressing that MSI was still very much in its early stages.
Enhancing regional MDA and building a COP in the South China Sea is an idea that has been floating around for years and had already been discussed at previous U.S. interactions with Southeast Asian states, including at the first ever meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii in April 2014. There have also been ongoing engagements exploring various aspects of this since, including several workshops held by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) with ASEAN countries. But MSI is the clearest and most concrete manifestation of this U.S. objective yet.

MSI itself originated initially not from DoD, but the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) led by John McCain who has long been a key voice on Asia security policy. It has since been adopted by DoD, and was first publicly unveiled by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s premier security summit – in Singapore in June 2015 (See: “US Launches New Maritime Security Initiative at Shangri-La Dialogue 2015“).

“Today, I am pleased to announce the DoD will be launching a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. And thanks to the leadership of the senators here today and others, Congress has taken steps to authorize up to $425 million for these maritime capacity-building efforts,” Carter said in his remarks.

MSI has since been officially incorporated into DoD’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy which was released last August. Within the DoD’s overall U.S. regional maritime security strategy, MSI falls into the broader category of maritime capacity-building – one of the four so-called “lines of effort” – with the other three being strengthening U.S. military capacity; leveraging military diplomacy; and strengthening regional security institutions.

Following this, MSI was incorporated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016. Under section 1263, MSI, which actually appears as “South China Sea Initiative,” authorizes funds for assistance and training for the purpose of increasing maritime security and maritime domain awareness of countries along the South China Sea – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Specifically authorized elements of assistance for these countries include equipment, supplies, training and small-scale military construction. The authorization also includes additional “covered countries” – Brunei, Taiwan and Singapore – which may participate in training and other activities.

Section 1263 also specifies a 15-day congressional notification period for MSI, where the Secretary of Defense would submit a notification to congressional defense committees containing details for the year such as the recipient foreign country, a detailed justification of the program and its relationship to U.S. security interests, the budget and a timetable of expenditures, and program objectives. On March 18, Searight, the deputy secretary of defense, told reporters at the opening session of the sixth U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue in Washington, D.C. that DoD had notified Congress a day earlier and was now awaiting for the congressional notification period to expire before moving forward with the initiative.


Though MSI will gradually be rolled out over the next few months and – assuming the next administration chooses to continue it – take shape in subsequent years, its potential significance is clear. By devoting funding to maritime security capacity-building in Southeast Asia over several years, MSI is at once a tangible demonstration of the U.S. rebalance at work, a sustainable American resource commitment during a challenging budgetary environment, and a big step towards a broader strategic objective of creating a common maritime operational picture in the region.

First, optics-wise, the allocation of $425 million in DoD funding is tangible proof that the United States is willing to devote resources to making the rebalance a reality. With funds already allocated for the next five years – as of now, The Diplomat understands from a source familiar with the initiative, $50 million for fiscal year 2016; $75 million for fiscal year 2017; and $100 million each of fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020 – it sends a strong message that Washington is committed to sustaining its efforts to aid maritime capacity-building efforts in the region.

“It says we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is, and that’s a powerful signal,” the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Diplomat in an interview.

Though the amount itself is admittedly a modest start, it is by no means insignificant. For perspective, for 2016, $50 million is being set aside just for MSI alone, while the Obama administration announced last November ahead of the president’s trip to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that the total amount of assistance it would provide for this year would be $140 million, a slight increase from the $119 million committed in 2015 (See: “US Announces Maritime Security Boost for Southeast Asia“).

Second, bureaucratically, MSI creates a pool of pre-allocated DoD funding that is both insulated from the fierce battles over foreign assistance as well as geared towards a specific goal. That itself is a notable feat given the difficulty of resourcing the rebalance at a time of budgetary difficulties.

The $425 million for the initiative comes from existing DoD money, which means that these defense funds will not need to be administered through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program which is run by the State Department, with implications for authorization as well as allocation. Pulling money out of other accounts like FMF – where a paltry 1 percent of total global funding went to the Asia-Pacific in 2015 – is a challenge that officials know well. In addition, congressional authorization also enabled Carter to then make an even stronger case for the reallocation of funds within DoD to resource MSI.

“It’s significant in that we’ve found a way to secure funding despite the challenges that come with how the United States does foreign assistance,” Brian Harding, a former defense official in the Obama administration who worked on Southeast Asia, told The Diplomat.

“This creates a very focused, regional pot of money, and it makes it easier to get support for it,” Harding, who is now director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said.

Third, strategically, as mentioned earlier, MSI represents a big step towards a broader U.S. objective of enhancing MDA to create a regional COP. DoD’s 2015 Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy technically specifies several lines of effort for MSI of which this is only one – others include providing supporting infrastructure for maritime response operations; expanding maritime exercises and engagements; strengthening maritime institutions, governance and personnel training; and identifying modernization or new systems requirements for critical maritime security capabilities.
There is also predictably no direct mention of it being directed at a particular threat – the goal is framed as building regional capacity to address “a range of maritime challenges.”

Yet to those familiar with MSI, it is nonetheless clear that a major thrust of it is to build maritime domain awareness and a common operating picture to help Southeast Asian states deal with or even counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. While greater individual and regional awareness would also be useful for other objectives as well including countering illegal fishing, cracking down on transnational crime, and responding to natural disasters, it would both reduce the vast asymmetry that exists between these countries’ capabilities and China’s as well as enable them to better deter gray zone coercion by Beijing both individually and collectively.

“There’s no doubt a big part [of this] is about helping countries deter and deal with China, because capacity is an issue still,” a source told The Diplomat.


But if the significance of MSI is already apparent, so too are its challenges. Indeed, policymakers will have to navigate past a range of issues that exist at home, in the region, and in their specific consultations with U.S. allies and partners.

At home, beyond the perennial question of the sustainability of such new initiatives beyond this administration, the concerns chiefly relate to resourcing and bureaucratic politics. On funding, $425 million for five years – the initial authorization runs up to September 30, 2020 – is not a lot of money, especially if Washington wants to realize its goal of building a COP in the South China Sea anytime soon. MSI will likely need to be supplemented with additional funding either from DoD or other sources.

“The problem with MSI is that it’s ‘budget dust’ in Pentagon speak; you can’t do much with $425 million,” Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014 and a regular contributor to The Diplomat, said.

Overcoming that financial hurdle is possible, says Jackson, now an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu as well as an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. With additional resources as well as partnerships with the private sector in Silicon Valley, Jackson says, Washington could create a good-enough common operating picture – as opposed to a military-grade COP requiring significant ISR capabilities which would cost billions of dollars. At present, though, that kind of partnership does not yet exist.

“It’s been difficult for government to bridge the divide with the tech sector though. Silicon Valley is completely aloof of the Pentagon’s strategic problems like the South China Sea,” said Jackson, the lead author in a report on constructing a common operational picture in the South China Sea released by CNAS in March.

The other domestic concern among some relates to whether MSI could inadvertently be contributing to the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign assistance. Since MSI is being financed with existing DoD money, rather than administered through the FMF program run by the State Department, there are those who worry whether this undermines State’s lead role in doling out foreign assistance, thereby leading to the approval of security funds that might contradict broader U.S. foreign policy interests such as preserving human rights. Indeed, some voices within Congress have even reportedly called for MSI to be moved over to the State Department.

To those familiar with MSI, this is rather overblown. As one source put it, claiming that less than half a billion dollars spread over the next five years (in a nearly $600 billion DoD annual budget) across an entire subregion is going to reshape U.S. foreign assistance policy seems like quite an exaggeration. Furthermore, as was mentioned earlier, the money will be spent on things like facility construction and training rather than weapons or hardware.

“We’re talking about peanuts in a budgetary sense, and despite the bureaucratic contentiousness of it all, there is a basic consensus about what the money should be spent on,” the source, who preferred to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Diplomat.

Publicly, both DoD and State say they are on the same page when it comes to MSI. Though the initiative is housed under DoD, David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told The Diplomat that the concurrence of the State Department is required on all MSI proposals, a requirement that Congress wrote into law to ensure foreign policy coordination.

“[D]oD and State have committed to work closely together to determine what assistance will be offered through its MSI to our allies and partners,” McKeeby said.
“The coordination of security assistance within a foreign policy framework remains a vital aspect of its delivery – no less in a politically sensitive region like this one.”

MSI could face regional challenges as well as it seeks to build this common operating picture. Some Southeast Asian countries may be hesitant to share information with their neighbors, not just due to sensitivities but other reasons as well including rivalries between them. The clearest example of this is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) concluded in 2004, which now includes 20 Asian states. Malaysia and Indonesia are still not official members up till today, in part due to disagreement on the location of the headquarters of the information sharing center in Singapore.

There is also the concern that MSI could be perceived as a U.S.-led tool directed against China even if it is not publicly presented as such, thereby complicating both the relationships these individual countries have with Beijing as well as regional MDA efforts. It is worth noting that while MSI has a much more ambitious goal of developing a COP in the South China Sea, the region does already have a few more modest initiatives of its own, from systems like Singapore’s Information Fusion Center (IFC) to multilateral cooperative endeavors such as the Malacca Straits patrols. For Washington, striking a balance between raising the bar to work towards a COP while also not getting too far ahead of regional MDA efforts will be a tricky one.

“It depend[s] on how it [MSI] evolves – it can lead to more security or more instability, but the point is that it is us in the region who have to live with either of those,” one official from a Southeast Asian state involved in MSI told The Diplomat.
The challenge of securing adequate buy-in and being sensitive to regional perceptions is not a new one. The cautionary tale of the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) – a proposal launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration which was initially meant to be a voluntary partnership between states to promote information-sharing and early warning to counter maritime transnational threats – is a case in point. Media reports that the-then PACOM commander Admiral Thomas Fargo had said that U.S. special forces and marines would patrol the Malacca Strait led to angry responses by both Malaysia and Indonesia, undermining the initiative and eventually leading to its demise soon after. Though there are some significant differences between RMSI and MSI, the point here is simply that the case nonetheless illustrates the importance of optics and messaging which is a useful lesson to remember.

Washington and Southeast Asian states have also encountered challenges in their initial efforts working together on MSI. More than one of the MSI members told The Diplomat that they initially did not have a clear sense of what the initiative was and was not – including specifics about its objectives and kinds of assistance they could seek.

Part of the problem on the U.S. side, a source told The Diplomat, was because DoD only had a few months this time around to finalize a list of projects and send them over for a congressional notification. This may have left less time than would have been preferred for partner countries to have time to think about projects that would fit under the initiative for the year. It was partly because of this that Manila ended up getting the “lion’s share” of the $50 million sought for 2016, as Searight told reporters March 18.
“It was difficult to understand but we also did not have enough time to decide on our side this time,” an official from another one of the five main countries involved in MSI admitted.

To a certain extent, that was to be expected and is not entirely Washington’s fault. For instance, an MSI country like Vietnam is a relatively new U.S. security partner, which means Hanoi does not possess as thorough of an understanding of U.S. bureaucratic processes as do other U.S. partners.

During his remarks commemorating the 20th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. last April, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius himself acknowledged that it might take some time for Vietnam to become familiar with complex U.S. procurement procedures (See: “What’s Next for U.S.-Vietnam Defense Relations?“). Vietnam also has its own internal considerations beyond MSI, such as what it would specifically like from Washington relative to its more traditional defense partners like Russia. As with other Southeast Asian cases – consider U.S.-Indonesia defense relations, for instance – it will take some time before this process of familiarization to gradually occur.


We will likely hear more details about MSI over the next few months, particularly with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s upcoming visit to the Philippines in April as Manila lies right at the heart of the initiative. But the significance of MSI is already clear. By committing itself to a multi-year maritime security capacity-building initiative in Southeast Asia with the key objective of creating a common operational picture in the South China Sea, Washington is tangibly demonstrating that the U.S. rebalance has real weight behind it and can serve both U.S. interests as well as those of regional states.

Though it is still early days and challenges remain, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration set to rule on the Philippines’ case against China on the South China Sea in May or June and the Shangri-La Dialogue coming up in early June as well, MSI’s rollout will certainly coincide with some interesting security developments in the region (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).

Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. He is also a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Obama, Xi Put Positive Spin on US-China Relations

From The Diplomat (Apr 1): Obama, Xi Put Positive Spin on US-China Relations (By )

The two presidents are seeking to emphasize the positive amid growing tensions

Obama, Xi Put Positive Spin on US-China Relations

Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Chinese President Xi Jinping is currently in the United States to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, along with a host of global figures (including top leaders from India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand). While the theme of the summit is focused on securing nuclear materials and nuclear non-proliferation, Xi’s presence in the U.S. capital recalled the growing list of friction points between Washington and Beijing, from the South China Sea to cyber issues.

On Thursday, Obama and Xi had their first bilateral meeting this year, the latest face-to-face since talks on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris four months ago.

Obama began his remarks with Xi by repeating the long-standing position that “the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China.” Xi, meanwhile, reiterated that “it is a priority for China’s foreign policy to work with the United States to build a new model of major country relations, and to realize no conflicts or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” Both those oft-repeated statements have worn rather thin, thanks in part to increasingly assertive moves in the disputed waters of the South China Sea from Beijing, and increasingly barbed verbal responses from U.S. military officials.

Still, the two sides could — and did — point to some positive progress on nuclear security. In a joint statement on nuclear security cooperation, the U.S. and China pledged to deepen cooperation and coordination to prevent nuclear smuggling and increase the security of nuclear materials. At a press briefing, Laura Holgate, added that Washington was “really quite encouraged by the leadership that China is beginning to show in the nuclear security realm.”

In another positive step, a new nuclear security Center of Excellence opened in China earlier this month, at a ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. Moniz described the new center, the result of close U.S.-China collaboration, as “a world-class facility for Chinese, regional, and international nuclear security training and technical exchanges.”

Meanwhile, White House officials were also quick to note China’s cooperation over the North Korean nuclear issue. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes pointed out that the recent UN Security Council sanctions – “the toughest sanctions that have ever been imposed on North Korea” – would not have been possible “without China’s cooperation and support.”

“So we’ve seen China step up in many ways in terms of applying pressure,” Rhodes told reporters in a press briefing on Wednesday. “The fact is, it has to over time affect the calculus of the North Korean leadership.”

Despite the upbeat tone, questions remain about just how coordinated China and the United States are in their approach toward North Korea. Beijing strongly favors negotiations – including peace treaty negotiations on a separate track from denuclearization talks – over sanctions, while the United States continues to emphasize the use of pressure to eventually bring North Korea to the table. Daniel Kritenbrink, the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council, called the North Korea question “one of the most important issues that President Obama and President Xi [will] discuss.”

During his remarks with Xi, Obama noted that “President Xi and I are both committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the full implementation of UN sanctions.” He said the bilateral meeting would include discussions on how to discourage provocations like missile tests.

In another symbol of U.S.-China cooperation on global issues, Obama and Xi will also gather together Thursday, along with the other leaders of the P5+1, to review progress on implementing the nuclear deal reached with Iran last year.

Meanwhile, climate change continues to provide a bright spot for U.S.-China cooperation. In a joint statement, Obama and Xi announced that the United States and China will both sign the Paris climate change agreement on April 22, and committed to completing the domestic processes to join the agreement “as early as possible this year.” The statement also proclaimed that “climate change has become a pillar of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship” and called cooperation in this field “an enduring legacy of the partnership between our two countries.”

The feel-good vibes on climate change might help to somewhat mitigate what Obama predicted would be a “candid exchange” with Xi over human rights, cyber, and maritime issues. However, White House officials appeared to be trying to downplay the South China Sea issue after weeks of sharp exchanges between the U.S. and China. Obama didn’t mention the South China Sea in his brief remarks with Xi; he did not even repeat standard U.S. nods to the importance of freedom of navigation and peaceful settlement of disputes.

In a press briefing prior to the Obama-Xi meeting, Rhodes tried to emphasize that U.S. insistence on principles such as non-militarization and resolving disputes in accordance with international law was “not to single out China.” Rhodes explained that non-militarization of the South China Sea, in particular, is “a principle that we would support as it relates to any country.”

U.S.-China bilateral meetings generally try to stay positive – thus the issuance of a joint statement on climate change, and more optimistic evaluations than usual on thorny issues like North Korea. Still, while handshakes and sunny joint statements can’t paper over growing tensions, holding the meeting at all was a small victory. After all, Xi could have chosen to follow the example of Russian President Vladimir Putin and skip the summit altogether.

What's Behind US Military Moves in the South China Sea?

From The Diplomat (Apr 1): What's Behind US Military Moves in the South China Sea? (by Hu Bo)

In the South China Sea, the U.S. military has put on a show similar to a Hollywood blockbuster.

What's Behind US Military Moves in the South China Sea?

Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released
In the past year, the United States has increasingly begun to flex its military muscle in the South China Sea. On May 20, 2015, a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon, a surveillance and submarine-hunting aircraft, flew over the airspace of islands and reefs where China was conducting construction activities. After that, the United States began repeatedly hyping that it would carry out “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOP) near the Nansha Islands (also known as the Spratly Islands). To date, Washington has openly admitted that it conducted two FONOPs in the South China Sea. On October 27, 2015, the U.S. Navy sent the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, to the waters within 12 nautical miles of Zhubi Reef (Subi Reef) among the Nansha Islands; on January 30, 2016, the USS Curtis Wilbur, another guided-missile destroyer, intruded into the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters of the Zhongjian Island (known as Triton Island) of the Xisha Islands (the Paracel Islands). In addition, the U.S. military has sent strategic weapons, including a B-52 bomber and the USS John Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, to perform patrol missions in the South China Sea region, in a bid to show off a strong U.S. presence in the region.

With regard to the U.S. military operations in the South China Sea, there are two sharply different views in China. Those who are optimistic believe that the U.S. maneuvers in the South China Sea make no sense at all, because they could not hinder China’s island and reef construction activities there. But the pessimists say that the U.S. military operations represent considerable military pressure on China. If China does not compromise, the U.S. military would continue to elevate its confrontations, and there emerges a possibility that China and the United States might engage in military conflicts in the South China Sea.

There are reasons for both schools of thought. While the optimists see the U.S. military operations as bravado, the pessimists see the risk of a spiraling escalation in the situation. These two views, however, fail to take the whole picture into consideration and fail to see the essence of the issue.

By analyzing the situation, it’s easy to figure out that the U.S. operations in the South China Sea are nothing but one political or diplomatic show after another. The United States knows best of all that it could not directly obstruct China’s sovereign activities in the South China Sea, so what it has attempted to do is to increase China’s costs for such sovereignty-defending activities through military, political, diplomatic, and media tools, so as to put China in a difficult and embarrassing situation diplomatically. No doubt, the media always pays close attention to military face-offs or conflicts, but in reality, war is not imminent. The U.S. military operations could, no doubt, be meant to be a deterrent, but they primarily serve as tools for accomplishing Washington’s political and diplomatic goals, along with diplomatic and media maneuvers.

On the freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the United States has always claimed that the FONOPs are no different from such operations in other regions across the world, and the United States applies a unified code of conduct to all of such operations. Some Chinese media reports and experts seem to have bought the U.S. argument, saying that the main motives of the U.S. military in the region are to challenge China’s “excessive maritime claims” and that it’s not worth making a tempest in a teacup over such operations.

But the recent U.S. military operations in the South China Sea were extraordinary. Even by the standards and tradition of the U.S. Navy, these FONOPs were all conducted in a high-profile manner, and looked like challenges China’s territorial claims. It is true that the United States conducts dozens of FONOPs each year all over the world, but the operations are usually carried out in a quiet and low-key manner, with details about these operations kept secret. Its recent FONOPs in the South China Sea, however, were exceptionally high-profile. The U.S. military even deliberately disclosed specifics about the operations to the media, and encouraged the mass media to sensationalize and hype its operations so as to direct global attention to the FONOPs.

With the deployment of advanced weaponry coupled with extensive media coverage, the U.S. military has put on a show similar to a Hollywood blockbuster. The general public and political forces in both the United States and China also got involved, and the military operations have evolved into political issues in both countries. In the United States, the White House and the Pentagon tried to create a crisis atmosphere with a sense of a looming “China threat,” and attempted to polish a strong image for the U.S. military in safeguarding its national interests.

And as for China, the United States could, through swaying the Chinese public opinion, exert its influence on China’s domestic political process. It had the intention of getting a growing number of Chinese involved in debating China’s policies on the South China Sea, and of obstructing China’s elite class from reaching consensus on the South China Sea issue. The FONOP operations by the U.S. military, viewed by many in China as an insult, were also meant to undermine the authority of the Chinese government and leadership, and create extra difficulties for the Chinese government.

For the United States, such operations are useful diplomatic tools, serving its goals by killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they could exert pressure on China, and on the other hand, they would also help appease U.S. allies and partners in the region, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

The politicization of the U.S. operations in the South China Sea is also intended to test China’s policies. The United States often blames China for conducting activities that it claims threaten peace, and for expanding the gray areas between peace and war. In fact, such statements could be more appropriately used to describe the South China Sea policies of the U.S. military. It first arrived at the Nansha Islands, and then sailed to the Xisha Islands; it first operated in what it claimed to be waters surrounding a low-tide elevation, and then conducted a FONOP in undisputed territorial waters. In carrying out the FONOPs in the South China Sea, the United States clearly followed a cautious approach of taking one step first to test the response before making the next move. In terms of rhetoric, the U.S. military was always in high tone; in specific operations, however, it tried to be cautious and keep things low-profile. This is a clear-cut strategy of testing China’s response and policy bottom line.

In the face of U.S. military operations in the South China Sea, China naturally should be prepared militarily. Due to the complexity and politicized trend of the U.S. military operations, China should look beyond these FONOPs, and should fully realize the political motives and impact. China should adopt and apply all options to counter and expose the traps set by the U.S. through such military operations.

Hu Bo is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Ocean Research of Peking University. 
The article originally appeared on China-US Focus and is reprinted with kind permission.

MILF: Editorial -- MILF’s hands-off policy on election

Editorial posted to the MILF Website (Apr 3): Editorial -- MILF’s hands-off policy on election

The hands-off policy of the MILF on Philippine elections will continue to be observed even during the current presidential election in this country.  The rationale anchors on the premise that the system of election here is so divisive, elitist, and expensive that in the end many if not most of those who get elected are usually not the best, honest, and capable personalities to lead the people. They simply are the moneyed, feared, and powerful.

Worse, the end result is that both the winners and losers are all losers, because both spent money and spread chicanery or intrigue among the people; and worst, the winners (we don’t know if there are many exceptions) will get back the huge sum of money they spent, either directly from the coffer of government or somewhere else through fraudulent means.

It is for this reason that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) offered some electoral reforms that would minimize the fraudulent practices ingrained in Philippine electoral system. Unless the electoral playing field is levelled to a fairer situation, the so-called democracy would persist to be at the tyranny (mercy?) of the powerful.

Hence, the BBL proposes some safety measures, among which, are: Election in a parliamentary system of government is simpler than electing the head of state and government through direct votes of the people; dividing the representations in parliament into single district representation, system of proportional representation, and reserved seats for marginalized sectors; and crafting of an electoral code suited to a parliamentary system that would bring democracy closer to the people. In addition, we intend to infuse moral values even in elections that cheating, over-spending, and use threats or force are not only contrary to good governance and society but are sins which we have to pay in the day Hereafter.

This is not to say, however, that the government especially under the current administration is not doing its level best to plug the loopholes in the electoral system in this country. In fact, this country has one of the best laws on elections in the world, but not much headway is possible, because the system is so firmly established and accepted by those who are enjoying and gaining from it. This matter worsens due to the people’s acquiescence or inability or helplessness to alter or change the status quo.

This means the MILF will not endorse any presidential candidate or any candidate for that matter. The most that the MILF can do is to put into concrete terms and explains the platform of the candidates for our members to be guided correctly when they cast their votes.  In the same vein, candidates are also free to meet and conduct dialogues with the leadership of the MILF to discuss their platforms of government related to the armed conflict in Mindanao, particularly the proposed BBL law that would legally operationalize and implement the provisions of the CAB for the establishment of genuinely autonomous Bangsamoro political entity.

It is this context that presidential candidates from Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Vice President Jejomar Binay, to former Secretary Mar Roxas sought dialogues with the MILF central leadership led by Chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. Duterte came first, then Senator and vice presidential candidate Gregorio Honassan, representing Binay, next, and then Secretary Roxas last. (Binay has promised to visit Darapanan in the near future, but no date has been given yet). Nothing official is heard yet of Senator Grace Poe whether she will also find wisdom in meeting the leadership of the MILF.

All of them told the MILF that they will push for the passage of the BBL in Congress once they elected into office.

South China Sea: Fish wars

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Apr 3): South China Sea: Fish wars

The already troubled waters of the South China Sea were further roiled recently by shoot-outs at sea and spats over illegal fishing. In the first of a three-part series, The Sunday Times’ foreign correspondents look at how intense competition over depleted fish stocks is adding fuel to tensions over territorial disputes in the area.

Fish produce at a market in Paranaque city in the Philippines. A growing appetite for fish and shrinking stocks are driving fishermen in countries around the South China Sea farther from their shores, often intruding into each other's territories. Indonesia has caught 153 vessels for poaching in its waters since late 2014, including those from Vietnam, the Philippines and China. The Philippine coast guard has held fishermen from Vietnam and Taiwan. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY/THE STRAITS TIMES

Fish produce at a market in Paranaque city in the Philippines. A growing appetite for fish and shrinking stocks are driving fishermen in countries around the South China Sea farther from their shores, often intruding into each other’s territories. Indonesia has caught 153 vessels for poaching in its waters since late 2014, including those from Vietnam, the Philippines and China. The Philippine coast guard has held fishermen from Vietnam and Taiwan. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY/THE STRAITS TIMES

KOTA KINABALU (Malaysia) — The calm, sun-dappled waters off the capital of Sabah have long been a magnet for international tourists seeking diving adventures.

These days, the fear of deadly kidnappings by pirates from southern Philippines has cast a shadow over the allure of its colorful marine life beneath the waves.

But for commercial fishermen like Simon Hong, who sports a military-style crew cut, pirates aren’t his worry. Poaching fishermen from neighboring countries that ring the South China Sea are.

Jamali Basri, who heads the fishing community in the port town of Miri in the neighboring Sarawak coast, is more direct. He says that roughly 1,000 fishermen from the state live in fear of “Chinese gunboats” that are providing cover to Chinese commercial fishing boats as they muscle into their traditional fishing grounds of Luconia Shoal, about 100km from Miri’s shores.

“We’ve heard stories about how the Chinese (coast guard vessels) have rammed boats from the Philippines and Vietnam. We are scared and our navy is doing nothing,” he tells The Sunday Times. “Maybe if the navy plants our flags there and keeps a presence, our fishermen may be more brave.”

Flags to assert sovereignty won’t be enough to deter China. And the problem is expected to worsen as demand for fish rises and countries become more assertive in exercising their rights under their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Neighboring Indonesia has caught 153 fishing vessels for poaching in its waters since late 2014, including 50 from Vietnam, 43 from the Philippines and one from China. It regularly destroys these boats by blowing them up in highly publicized media events in a bid to deter poaching. Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry last week summoned China’s ambassador after some 100 Chinese fishing boats were spotted in waters just off Sarawak.

But the growing appetite for fish, coupled with shrinking stocks, is driving fishermen farther and farther from their shores. Argentina last month sunk a fishing trawler from China that it said was poaching in its EEZ.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates the value of global fish trade last year amounted to roughly US$130 billion (P5.9 trillion).

As the population in China and Southeast Asia grows and consumers become more affluent and discerning about their diet, the pressure on wild fish stocks in the South China Sea will only worsen. “There will be less wild-caught seafood on the plate in Southeast Asia in the future and much more farmed fish,” says FAO’s fishery expert Simon Funge-Smith.

But fish farming is suitable only for certain forms of seafood such as bass, salmon and shellfish, not so for the much prized tuna and swordfish. It also has its downsides, including depleting smaller species such as anchovies used to feed the farmed fish and leaving poor coastal communities without even this cheaper form of protein.

According to a 2015 University of British Columbia study, the South China Sea produces at least 10 million tons of fish or 12 per cent of the global catch each year, but the true number is likely much higher as the data does not take into account illegal and unregulated fishing.

The depletion of fish stocks is of serious concern as seafood provides a major source of protein and income for millions of poor people in coastal areas. Shortages and increased competition also aggravate the problem in other ways. Unregulated trawling and illegal methods such as blast fishing destroy breeding grounds, racking up even greater problems for the future.

“It’s increasingly hard to catch fish. We now have to venture farther out into the seas,” said Chinese fisherman Li Zhongming, 38, from southern Hainan.

In the Philippines, 10 out of the 13 designated fishing grounds have been overfished. As a result, the population and size of small pelagic fish species, such as sardines and scad, are shrinking. Data from the fisheries bureau shows that the average daily haul of a Filipino fisherman has fallen to 4.76kg from as much as 20kg in the 1970s.

The main culprit has been industrial fishing. The Philippines has a fleet of about 1,000 commercial boats feeding a booming canned food industry and Japan’s ever-growing hunger for quality tuna. Each boat, in terms of fish haul, is equivalent to 65 outrigger canoes, and their larger nets typically catch fish too young to reproduce, threatening stock viability.

Vietnam is one of the world’s top five seafood exporters, together with Indonesia and Thailand, and has the world’s third largest fishery production and aquaculture industry after China and India. Including farmed species, Vietnam exported US$6.57 billion (P299 billion) worth of seafood in 2015.

Indonesia, home of the world’s largest tuna fishing grounds, produces more than 100,000 tonnes of tuna a year. But 90 per cent of the roughly 5,400 local and foreign vessels that ply the Indonesian waters have no permits, putting the sector’s losses to poaching at as high as US$25 billion (P1.2 trillion) annually.

The growing competition is fueling rows over maritime borders and fishery rights. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines–countries that form the perimeter of the South China Sea–are locked in territorial disputes. While countries can claim rights under the EEZs, there is Beijing’s nine- dash line that virtually claims all of the South China Sea as its own. Diplomats say Beijing is trying to add heft to its claim that the tongue- shaped nine-dash line represents the country’s “traditional fishing grounds” through the presence of large numbers of private fishing vessels protected by its coast guard.

“It is a clever strategy because the marine fishing industries in the region aren’t as equipped as the Chinese vessels which venture all over the globe,” says one diplomat.

Tension is stoked as Southeast Asian nations try to police their fishing grounds, leading to shoot-outs at sea. But it is a tough job as regional coast guard patrols cannot cope with their limited crew and equipment. Greenpeace oceans campaigner Vince Cinches noted that fishermen from southern Philippines have ventured more than 500km to the waters around the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Often they fly the Indonesian flag to evade the coast guard.

Philippines is itself a major victim to poaching. South of Scarborough Shoal, in the disputed Spratly archipelago, more than 300 Chinese fishing boats can be seen on any given day, according to Mr Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of a town that covers a Philippine-held island in the Spratlys.

But it is not just the Chinese. In recent years, the Philippine coast guard has arrested fishermen from Vietnam and Taiwan. To protect its depleting maritime resources, the Philippines is acquiring 100 new patrol boats to add to the current 20.

In Indonesia, senior fisheries official Slamet Soebjakto told reporters last week that the government is planning to bar foreign vessels from entering waters considered breeding grounds. These will cover areas in Kendari, Sikakap and Natuna. “We want to maintain our sovereignty,” he said.

Malaysian crew thought kidnappers were security officials

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Apr 3): Malaysian crew thought kidnappers were security officials

The crew of MV Masfive 6 did not think anything was amiss when four armed men boarded their vessel as they were cruising in the Celebes Sea from Manila to Tawau.

As the four men dressed in black uniform rounded them up, they figured it was just a routine check by maritime security officials.

They least thought that they were at the mercy of some notorious Filipino kidnap-for-ransom gang.

READ: Suspected Filipino militants kidnap 4 Malaysian boat crewmen
It is learned that only when the kidnappers spoke in a mix of English and Tagalog (a Filipino dialect) that the crew realized the men in black were not Malaysian security personnel but kidnappers.

One of the gunmen then demanded to know their nationalities before taking off with the four Malaysians in their speedboat where four other gunmen were waiting.

READ: No sign of 4 kidnapped Malaysian sailors

The incident took place at about 6:15 pm on Friday, the crew members said, and they also saw the armed men grab a laptop and handphones before fleeing north towards Philippines.

The tugboat had delivered a cargo of timber to Manila from Tarakan in Indonesia. The boat left the Philippine capital on March 27 and was on its leg back to Tawau with no cargo.

Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun said that the police were interviewing the crewmen and had also deployed assets to the Ligitan area and added none of the freed crew members were hurt.

MSDF submarine, escort ships arrive in Philippines for port call, training

From the Japan Times (Apr 3): MSDF submarine, escort ships arrive in Philippines for port call, training

The Maritime Self-Defense Force's diesel-electric training submarine Oyashio, escorted by the destroyer Ariake (background), one of two vessels that made the journey with the sub, arrives at Subic Bay in the Philippines on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine and two escort ships arrived in the Philippines early Sunday — the first visit of its kind in 15 years — for a goodwill visit amid China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

The training submarine Oyashio, accompanied by the Ariake and the Setogiri, made a port call at Subic Bay, the home of the former U.S. naval base, ahead of planned open sea drills. Some 500 personnel, including 55 officer candidates, are taking part in the confidence-building exercise.

Philippine Navy public affairs officer Capt. Lued Lincuna said the three MSDF vessels would be staying in Subic Bay until April 6.

The two ships escorting the sub are then scheduled to continue on to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for a similar visit to another Asian ally. The trip to Cam Ranh Bay will take the two vessels through the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam and three other claimant nations are involved in simmering territorial disputes with China.

The visit to the Philippines comes ahead of a much-anticipated arbitration case concerning the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea.

Manila expects the court to hand down a ruling before May.

But despite the growing ties between Tokyo and Manila, Lincuna said the visit was “not directed at any other countries.”

“It has nothing to do with China,” Lincuna said.

Beijing lays claim to most of the South China Sea, through which $5 billion in global trade passes each year. It has constructed artificial islands in the waters — with some home to military-grade airfields, radar systems and weapons — riling neighboring claimants.

For its part, the United States has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises in recent months, sailing ships near disputed islands to underscore the right to freely navigate the seas. Reuters cited an unidentified U.S. official Saturday as saying that a third such exercise was set for early this month.

While not a claimant in the South China Sea, Tokyo has been embroiled in a fight with Beijing over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyus, in the East China Sea.

The Japanese decision to send the three vessels to the Philippines, one of the most vocal critics of China’s massive land-reclamation projects in the region, has drawn fire from Beijing. Top Chinese officials have slammed Japan’s push to shore up smaller regional claimants to the waters, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying last month that Beijing was keeping a watchful eye on Tokyo’s moves in the area.

“Japan once illegally occupied China’s islands in the South China Sea during WWII,” Hong said. “We are on high alert against Japan’s attempt to return to the South China Sea through military means.”

The visit to Vietnam is also likely to spur an angry reaction from China.

The arrival of the Japanese vessels coincides with the Balikatan joint exercises between the U.S. and Philippine militaries, which are set to kick off Monday. MSDF personnel will also be in attendance as observers.

Amy Searight, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said last week that Japan is in talks with the Philippines about participating in the joint drills on a regular basis.

“Japan is talking to the Philippines about a status of forces agreement, so that Japan can regularly participate in those kinds of exercises,” Searight told a think tank event in Washington, according to Kyodo News.

The envisioned agreement would govern the operations of the Self-Defense Forces in the Philippines.

“Japan is participating (in the Balikatan drill) as an observer. Japan very much wants to participate more,” she said.

Tokyo has ramped up its cooperation with both Manila and Hanoi, leasing patrol aircraft to the Philippines and building stronger defense ties with Vietnam.

Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani plans to visit Manila on April 23 and 24 for talks on further deepening security ties, including the possible expansion of joint exercises between the MSDF and the Philippine Navy, reports have said. In late February, Tokyo and Manila signed a defense equipment transfer agreement. This made the Philippines the first Southeast Asian country to have such an agreement with Japan. The agreement promotes the joint production and development of defense equipment and technology, and establishes a legal framework to do so.

According to media reports, the first transfer under the new agreement may be at least five retired MSDF TC-90 aircraft that the Japanese government plans to lease to the Philippine Navy. The aircraft could be used for visual monitoring over the Spratly Islands. Discussions on such a lease may take place during Nakatani’s visit slated for later this month.