Small Wars Journal

Philippines: Bangsamoro, A Triumph of Western Diplomacy?

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 5:30am

Ruurdje Laarhoven, a Dutch-American scholar, wrote in her book, "Triumph of Moro Diplomacy: The Maguindanao Sultanate in the 17th Century" (New Day, 1989) the story of how the Maguindanao Sultanate preserved its independence by playing off colonial powers, Spain and the Dutch Netherlands, against each other.  According to one reviewer, the book was perhaps the first attempt to depict Mindanao within its natural zone of activity, which in the 17th century included the Southern Philippines, North Maluku and Sulawesi (the last two of which are part of modern Indonesia).  Now we are in the 21st century in the year 2013, and we are witness again to another triumph in diplomacy.  But this time it is a triumph of Western diplomacy regarding the same territorial space that the Maguindanao Sultanate occupied in southern Philippines.

On October 15, 2012, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in a formal ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila witnessed by Philippine President Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Secretary-General Exmeleddin Ihsanoglu.  The signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro followed 15 years of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF with Malaysia acting as facilitator cum mediator of the peace talks regularly held in Kuala Lumpur.  It is not yet a completed peace agreement but merely a framework with annexes on power-sharing, wealth-sharing, normalization and modalities still to be negotiated and finalized by the end of the year.  The OIC imprimatur to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is important because it has been involved in trying to resolve the Moro conflict peacefully since 1974 when it brokered an autonomy formula for the Bangsamoro under the Tripoli Peace Agreement of 1976 which was never satisfactorily implemented leading to renewed cycles of armed conflict.  But now the OIC is an observer in the GPH-MILF peace talks since a number of its member countries are part of the peace process with Malaysia as the facilitator, Turkey and Saudi Arabia as members of the International Contact Group, and Brunei and Indonesia as members of the International Monitoring Team that monitors the ceasefire on the ground.

In President Aquino's speech on October 7 announcing that the two negotiating parties have come to an agreement he said and I quote:  "The ARMM (referring to the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) is a failed experiment.  Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system, and those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun. We cannot change this without structural reform. This is the context that informed our negotiations throughout the peace process. And now, we have forged an agreement that seeks to correct these problems. It defines our parameters and our objectives, while upholding the integrity and sovereignty of our nation.  This agreement creates a new political entity, and it deserves a name that symbolizes and honors the struggles of our forebears in Mindanao, and celebrates the history and character of that part of our nation. That name will be Bangsamoro."[1] In one stroke, Bangsamoro has been acknowledged by the Philippine government's highest official and its head of state. 

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro itself provides:  "The Parties agree that the status quo is unacceptable and that the Bangsamoro shall be established to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The Bangsamoro is the new autonomous political entity….The Parties recognize Bangsamoro identity. Those who at the time of conquest and colonization were considered natives or original inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago and its adjacent islands including Palawan, and their descendants whether of mixed or of full blood shall have the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro by ascription or self-ascription."[2]  The recognition of Bangsamoro identity and homeland is in accordance with international standard practice on the recognition of indigenous people's right to self-determination as contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This diplomatic triumph wherein the negotiating parties arrived at a peace agreement is due in large part to Western legal advances in international relations, peace processes, mediation and conflict resolution and to the diplomatic tools designed and applied by Western powers in other conflict-affected areas around the world.  The ideas of shared sovereignty, earned sovereignty, devolution process and engaging with armed non-state actors emanated from think tanks, the academe and diplomatic policy experts of Western institutions and Western governments.  The creation of Bangsamoro is not unlike the creation of Kosovo and the establishment of Bosnia as forms of conflict resolution through Western intervention.  In the case of the Bangsamoro it was soft Western intervention through the mechanism of the International Contact Group composed of Britain, Japan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and international non-governmental organizations namely, the Asia Foundation, Conciliation Resources, Muhammadiyah and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.  The negotiating parties took lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process, Aceh peace process, South Sudan peace process, devolution in Scotland, power-sharing in Catalonia and Basque Country and dealt with experts and lessons on conflict zones from other parts of the world from Colombia to Myanmar.  On the ground best practices at peacekeeping and ceasefire monitoring such as a Civilian Protection Component (similar to the US-led Civilian Protection Monitoring Team in South Sudan) were adopted by the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team with contingents coming from the European Union (EU), Japan, Norway, Brunei, Indonesia and Libya.  The World Bank engaged with the MILF through grassroots projects in Mindanao; probably the first time that the World Bank partnered with an armed non-state actor.  By 2008-2009, the United Nations agencies were already present in Mindanao after large scale displacements reaching up to 600,000 people were caused by fighting between the MILF and the Philippine military that arose out of an aborted attempt to sign in 2008 a preliminary peace agreement, the so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain.[3]

What triggered all this Western support to resolve a half-forgotten conflict in a far corner of the world was the letter of Salamat Hashim, the late founder of the MILF, in 2003 to then US President George Bush wherein he stated in his letter: 

"Your project to grant Philippine independence obliged the leaders of the Moro Nation to petition the US Congress to give us an option through a referendum either by remaining as a territory to be administered by the US Government or granted separate independence fifty years from the grant of Philippine independence. Were it not for the outbreak of the Pacific War, the Moro Nation would have been granted trust territory status like any of the Pacific island states who are now independent or in free association with the United States of America.

On account of such circumstances, the Moro Nation was deprived of their inalienable right to self-determination, without waiving their plebiscitary consent. Prior to the grant of Philippine independence on July 4, 1946, American Congressional leaders foresaw that the inclusion of the Moro Nation within the Philippine Commonwealth would result in serious conflicts in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, arising from the inability of the Filipino leaders to govern the Moro people. This condition or states of affairs have continued to prevail to the present day.

In view of current global developments and regional security concerns in Southeast Asia, it is our desire to accelerate the just and peaceful negotiated settlement of the Mindanao conflict, particularly the present colonial situation in which the Bangsamoro people find themselves.

We are therefore appealing to the basic principle of American fairness and sense of justice to use your good offices in rectifying the error that (sic) continuous to negate and derogate the Bangsamoro People’s fundamental right to seek decolonization under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960. For this purpose, we are amenable to inviting and giving you the opportunity to assist in resolving this predicament of the Bangsamoro People."[4]

Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelley wrote back to Salamat Hashim enunciating US policy regarding the conflict in June of the same year - that the United States government is committed to the territorial integrity of the Philippines; the United States recognizes that the Muslims of the southern Philippines have serious, legitimate grievances that must be addressed; the United States wishes to see an end to the violence in the southern Philipines and is working to assist the Republic of the Philippines in addressing the root causes of that violence; the United States stands ready to support, both politically and financially, a bona fide peace process between the Republic of the Philippines and the MILF; and lastly that the United States appreciates the notable work that the Government of Malaysia has performed in this connection and would not seek to supplant Kuala Lumpur; in fact, it wanted to work with the Malaysians for a successful peace settlement.[5]

Indeed, after the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the White House issued an official statement wherein it commended Malaysia for facilitating the framework agreement between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).  "We commend the Philippines Government and the MILF leadership for their hard work and unwavering commitment to a better future, as well as Malaysia for its longstanding role as facilitator of the negotiations," the statement from the press secretary's office of the White House read.[6]

For the longest time the conflict in Mindanao has bedeviled the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC).  Despite two interventions through OIC mediation and facilitation that led to the signing of the Tripoli Peace Agreement of 1976 and 1996 GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement in Jakarta, the OIC failed to resolve the conflict because it depended too much on the recognition of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as the "sole representative of the Bangsamoro people" wherein the OIC even granted observer status to the MNLF.  The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is more inclusive because it gave the rest of the Bangsamoro people including MNLF representatives the chance to be part of the Transition Commission that will draft the Basic Law or charter of the Bangsamoro.  The MILF was also consistent in sending out the message that it was negotiating on behalf of the Bangsamoro people and not for the MILF organization alone so that practically all the members of its negotiating peace panel are not organic members of the MILF.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are part of the International Contact Group and influential members of the OIC can join with the OIC's Southeast Asian members, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, the latter two of which have contingents in the International Monitoring Team, in redeeming the record of the OIC in Mindanao by assisting in the implementation of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

The Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro is an opportunity for collaboration between the OIC and the West.  In fact, Britain had already signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the OIC recently that could very well be a platform for joint initiatives in the Bangsamoro.[7]  Similarly, the US government engaged with the OIC as co-partner to advance Track 1.5 Diplomacy for Peace and Prosperity at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September this year.[8]  Doing collaborative programs and projects in the Bangsamoro can enhance such cooperation by the OIC with leading Western powers like Britain and the US.

The key to all these collaborations happening on the ground is, of course, engaging with the Armed Non-State Actor, the MILF, that is the signatory to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and their various interlocutors.  The Philippine government itself recognizes that it needs to partner with the MILF and only by making it a strong partner for security and peace can there be a successful implementation of a peace agreement.  In fact, the MILF was already astute enough with the cooperation of the Philippine peace panel to establish the Bangsamoro Development Agency and the Bangsamoro Leadership and Management Institute, the latter even getting seed money of five million pesos from the government.[9]  During his interview at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in October, President Aquino made this telling statement referring to the MILF "that once was not a direct partner of the government, and I refer specifically to the MILF," but will now be "a very active component (of the government) in preserving the peace in Mindanao.”[10]  “They (MILF) have already demonstrated when the BIFF (the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) allegedly perpetrated a lot of atrocities during the midst of the (peace) discussions. They have contained the same. They have actually demonstrated their capacity to police their areas. So it is not a hypothetical theory. It is an actual practice that they were effective in helping us maintain the so called outbreak of violence that the BIFF was stating," he added.

The maritime Southeast Asian countries, which are Muslim countries and members of the OIC namely, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia are all part in one way or another of the success of the GPH-MILF peace process up to this point.  Their collaboration in securing the peace on the ground and in monitoring the ceasefire in Mindanao in their own maritime backyard is something that must be encouraged and nurtured.  It is a unique collaboration in that these maritime Southeast Asian states worked with the foremost maritime state in Asia, Japan and with the European Union and Norway, also a maritime state with a long seafaring tradition.  Malaysian diplomatic perseverance in trying to resolve the Mindanao Conflict for 15 long years must surely be commended and lauded but Indonesia itself, the growing regional power in Southeast Asia, showed its diplomatic maturity and flexibility in relying on the 30-million strong moderate Islamist social movement of Muhammadiyah to be its representative in the International Contact Group. 

On the other hand, the United States is represented in the International Contact Group albeit not officially by the Asia Foundation, which began in 1951 as the Committee for Free Asia, which, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), was “an ostensibly private body . . . sanctioned by the National Security Council and, with the knowledge of congressional oversight committees, supported with covert indirect Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funding” (CRS 1983).[11]  The CIA no longer funds the Asia Foundation but it retains its mystique as a former CIA conduit for funding covert American activities.  So it would not be surprising if later on the conspiracy-minded Philippine press will publish accusations that the Bangsamoro is a CIA creation just like the ill-fated Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain in 2008 was viewed as the brainchild of the United States Institute of Peace since it was involved in the peace process at that time on the issue of ancestral domain of the Moros.[12]  Over all the impact of such hair-brained conspiracy theories still make Western diplomacy, particularly that of the United States, seem invincible and triumphant, as well as, bolstering the prestige of Western intelligence agencies.

There may arise emerging competing blocks of Western powers with regard to the Bangsamoro. The first block would pertain to the Anglosphere or the British Commonwealth countries.  Of the countries, that issued official statements with regard to the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, all the Anglosphere Commonwealth countries, namely Australia, New Zealand and Canada issued their own official statements. Australia is one of the biggest donors in Muslim Mindanao funding mostly basic education. New Zealand was the main funder of the UNDP Philippine Development Report of 2005 that highlighted the conflict in Mindanao and Canada for 18 years funded a local good governance program in the ARMM that ended in 2009.  President Aquino is set to go on a State Visit to Australia and New Zealand in the coming weeks and it has been reported in the news that he will bring the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro as part of his agenda with the two countries.  Australia is the only major donor country in the Philippine that has strategic interests in Mindanao but is not officially involved in any of the organs of the peace architecture of the GPH-MILF peace process; although it has the advantage of having signed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines allowing its military personnel to train in the country.  However, it was the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy that published in 2006 a research paper that became the blueprint for Western engagement in the Mindanao conflict entitled, "Mindanao: A Gamble Worth Taking" (Cook and Collier).  It is worth noting also that Brunei and Malaysia are Commonwealth countries with Malaysia having a defense treaty under the Five Powers Defense Arrangement with Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore so it would seem natural that the Commonwealth countries would support Malaysia in its facilitation role in the GPH-MILF peace talks.

The other emerging block are the EU countries but it is still inchoate or uncertain whether or not they are really major geopolitical players in the Bangsamoro because the EU has an incoherent foreign policy as can be expected from a multilateral agency.  The foreign minister of the EU, Catherine Ashton, a British national, made an official statement regarding the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.  Britain sits in the International Contact Group and it is an EU member while the EU itself is a member of the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team and they have sent two monitors for human rights and international humanitarian law.  The monitors from the EU in the International Monitoring Team have been British nationals ever since they started sending monitors but it is unknown how closely they coordinate with the British government.  Superficially at least, the British dominate the EU presence in the Bangsamoro and it is more than likely Britain will be one of the biggest funders of EU initiatives in the Bangsamoro. The EU will probably continue contributing funds to peace-building in Mindanao but it will not be a driver of diplomatic engagements on the ground due to its bureaucratic, hide-bound and protocol-oriented nature.  It is not clear if the EU even has a policy on how to engage with Armed Non-State Actors as it has been inconsistent in meeting and engaging the MILF wherein one former ambassador of the EU was instrumental in getting a kidnapped Irish priest released using MILF fighters to run after the kidnappers while the current EU ambassador has not even set foot in the headquarters of the MILF even as his predecessor has trooped to it a number of times.[13]  For the rest of the international players and the Bangsamoro constituents, dealing with the EU consume much of their time so that EU has been left to fund NGOs and multi-donor agencies of the UN. The EU is still evolving an institutional capacity for donor intervention on its own account but they have to be managed well, since the EU is like an ungainly giant that lacks fine motor control and liable to crush the toes and feet of those it dances with, even if it is unintentional.

Japan is supreme in the Bangsamoro and can be considered first among equals in terms of how it has handled its intervention in the Bangsamoro.  It enjoys the unique advantage of being a member of both the International Contact Group and the International Monitoring Team.  It is a testament to Japan's skillful diplomacy that both negotiating parties were eager to have Japan play a role in the peace process in as many capacities as it is capable of handling.  Japan is the largest source of Official Development Assistance in the Philippines and it has been working in the country on development issues for many years.  But it is also one of the largest sources of Foreign Direct Investments in the country dominating the car and electronic industries of the Philippines with investments from power generation to mining and agricultural ventures. Japan from the beginning was very conscious in branding its development interventions so that people in the Bangsamoro can directly identify with their projects earning them legitimacy.  One example of this is that even before the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, Japan put all its projects relating to the peace process under the rubric Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD) and this bit of branding was inspired genius leaving other donor interventions in the dust from the start of its soft-launching.  Japan will continue to be a trendsetter in the Bangsamoro because it can bank on its tremendous relationship and social capital after earning the trust of both parties and the Bangsamoro constituency. 

The transformation of the MILF into a political partner in the peace process will be handled best by the maritime and Muslim Southeast Asian states of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Indonesia in particular with its vibrant democracy and through Muhammadiyah can help MILF transform into a peaceful and progressive social movement for the benefit of the downtrodden Moro masses.  Malaysia with its advanced means of social control can provide lessons in living in a multi-ethnic society balancing the needs of each distinct community.  Brunei with its emphasis on an Islamic way of life can contribute in the Bangsamoro on how it integrates an Islamic way of life in nation building to meet the challenges of the 21st century.  The Western countries with their resources can work through these Muslim Southeast Asian states but at the same time it can work through the OIC since Turkey and Saudi Arabia are members of the International Contact Group.  The current Secretary-General is a Turk while the OIC headquarters is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  So both Turkey and Saudi Arabia can guide OIC interventions in the Bangsamoro since they have been part of the International Contact Group from the beginning and they have observed first hand how the peace process and the peace talks were forged between the negotiating parties including the nuances and the inevitable compromises that the negotiating parties had to take.

The overall global and regional geopolitical context of this triumph of Western diplomacy in the Bangsamoro is the US pivot to Asia.  While the rest of the West including Japan does soft intervention to keep the lid on the troubles in Mindanao, over the horizon is the looming shadow of the US armed forces. In fact, this month US and Philippine officials have announced that Subic Bay in Northern Luzon island, once home to the 7th Fleet and the site of the United States' largest overseas naval base, will begin to host US personnel on a semi-permanent basis.[14]  Subic Bay is facing Scarborough Shoal, which has continued to be Chinese-occupied after China and the Philippines engaged in a fishing row regarding the shoal early this year.  A Chinese submarine once collided with a US Navy vessel in the waters off Subic Bay.[15]  Coinciding with the return of the US Navy to Subic Bay is the beginning of closer security cooperation between Australia and the Philippines after the ratification of the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia by the Philippine Senate this year. Australia and the Philippines are conducting Naval exercises this week dubbed “Lumbas 2012,” the 12th annual Maritime Training Activity between the Philippines and Australia.[16]  It is aimed at enhancing the capabilities of the naval forces of both countries in disaster response and fighting cross-border crimes such as terrorism, human trafficking and drug smuggling.  Due to the ongoing peace process, the Philippine military can look forward to winding down its counterinsurgency and internal security operations in Mindanao so that it can focus more on external defense.

Malaysia, which already has a border patrol agreement with the Philippines, is discussing with the Philippines the possibility of having its own formal Status of Visiting Forces Agreement in the wake of the successful signing of the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro.[17] This is the next logical step for Malaysia because it has been leading since 2003 the deployment of unarmed multi-national troops in Mindanao headed by a Malaysian General together with a contingent of Malaysian soldiers, the biggest contingent in the International Monitoring Team. The significant on the ground interaction and cooperation between Malaysian military officers and Philippine military officers brought about by the deployment of Malaysian troops in the International Monitoring Team can be sustained with a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement.  Both Malaysia and the Philippines are locked in maritime disputes with China regarding the South China Sea.  Japan for its part has contributed patrol ships to the Philippine Coast Guard and is a premier security partner of both Malaysia and the Philippines but it only has a civilian peace monitor in the International Monitoring Team. 

Indonesia is not left behind because it has its own border patrol and maritime interdiction agreements with both the Philippines and Malaysia.  However, Indonesia is wary of any developing Malaysian and Philippine defense cooperation because of the history of British-Malaysian military actions towards Indonesia during the Konfrontasi period and the Philippine's own intervention through the CIA in Sulawesi during the Colonels’ or Permesta revolt in Sulawesi and Sumatra of which President Aquino's father, the late Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, was a part of.[18] Hopefully, with the deployment of Indonesian troops under the International Monitoring Team, a lot of socialization and habits of cooperation can happen and develop among Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine troops and officers. 

But at the end of the day the successful coordination of this complicated diplomatic and security dance between and among countries and block of countries depends on a successful peace process in Mindanao.  The Bangsamoro project has begun in earnest and those that fail to sustain a long-term interest in the Bangsamoro will surely be left behind in the Great Game of maritime Southeast Asia. 


[1] Speech of President Aquino on the Framework Agreement with the MILF, Philippine Daily Inquirer October 7, 2012.

[2] Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, at, October 7, 2012 last accessed October 21, 2012 at

[3] “Mindanao’s 600,000 IDPs in 2008 is biggest worldwide” at, May 1, 2009 last accessed on October 21, 2012 at

[4] Copy of Salamat Hashim’s letter dated January 20, 2003 posted at last accessed on October 21, 2012.

[5] GRP-MILF Peace Process, Compilation of Signed Agreements and Other Related Documents (1997-2010), MILF Peace Panel and the Asia Foundation, 2010.

[6] “KL commended for role as facilitator of Philippines’ peace framework agreement”, The Star, October 17, 2012.

[7] “OIC, UK Sign Memorandum of Cooperation” at, September 29, 2012 last accessed October 21, 2012 at

[8] “Co-partners Advance Track 1.5 Diplomacy for Peace and Prosperity”, Organization of Islamic Cooperation News at, September 28, 2012 last accessed on October 21, 2012 at

[9] “Building Structures for Peace”, Conciliation Resources website at, August 2012 last accessed October 21, 2012 at

[10] “Aquino sees MILF as partner for peace”, Ison, L., at, October 17, 2012 last accessed on October 21, 2012 at

[11] “The Asia Foundation Past, Present and Future” Congressional Research Service (1983) last accessed October 21, 2012 at

[12] “Peace in Mindanao, at What Price?”, CenPEG Issue Analysis No. 13, Series of 2008, August 26, 2008 last accessed on October 21, 2012 at

[13] “Fr. Sinnott freed MILF helps secure release of Irish missionary”, Lacson, N., Manila Bulletin, November 12, 2009.

[14] “Philippines, US confirm US Navy's return to Subic Bay”, Cohen, M. and Hardy, J. at, October 12, 2012 last accessed October 21, 2012 at

[15] “China sub collides with array towed by U.S. ship: report”, Cowan, R.,, June 12, 2009 last accessed on October 21, 2012 at

[16] “Philippines, Australia navies start joint training exercises in Lumbas 2012”, at, October 21, 2012 last accessed at

[17] Supra note 6.

[18] Subversion As Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia, Kahin, A. and Kahin, G.  University of Washington Press, 1995, p. 188-189.


About the Author(s)

Ishak V. Mastura is a former Deputy Executive Secretary, former Chairman of the Regional Board of Investments, and former Trade and Industry Secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).  He is a lawyer with a Master of Laws in Petroleum Law and Policy from the University of Dundee, U.K. and an author of several articles and papers on the Mindanao Conflict that have been published by various newspapers, journals and periodicals including the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jindal Journal of International Affairs.  He is currently on the Advisory Council for Mindanao of the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the treasurer and board of trustee of the non-profit foundation and civic organization, ARMM Business Council.



Tue, 01/15/2013 - 6:14pm

In reply to by peter parker

I added some comments down the thread, but I have to say it's interesting to see things I wrote back in 2004 quoted here in 2013. Not that I object, but what goes around does indeed come around.

Again I think the geopolitical significance of the Southern Philippine conflict is much overstated here. I don't believe that there is any intention or desire on the US side to develop military facilities in the Bangsamoro area or to break that area away from the Philippines. I'm not one for Sinophobic hysteria and I do not see an apocalyptic US-China confrontation in the cards. Assumptions that the economic rise of China is inexorable seem to me much exaggerated: the US has only to manage the situation and wait until the Chinese trip over their own (massive) internal issues. Certainly the US will maneuver, but I think much less aggressively than suggested here.

I don't believe that US forces are in mindanao "under the guise" of anything. That operation is pretty much what it says it is, and has little visible relevance to any wider issue. 600 troops in Mindanao will not constrain the Chinese from doing anything they want to do.

I don't think China is stealing a march on the US with business deals in the Philippines (even if Henry Sy were controlled by Beijing, a highly debatable point). More like the Philippine government is trying to play both sides and not be identified solely with one side or the other.

peter parker

Tue, 01/08/2013 - 9:01pm

The return of American geopolitical realism in foreign and defense policies finds echoes in Bill and Dayuhan's views. The appointment of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as U.S. Secretary of Defense will probably emphasize a more nuanced and circumspect approach in the use of US military power, which has been demonstrated anyway in the Obama administration's limited military responses in Libya and Syria. It is remarkable that most of Obama's foreign policy initiatives were not opposed by Mitt Romney in the presidential debates. However, in the case of the South China Sea, even Japan's new prime minister Shinzo Abe recently called the South China Sea as "Lake Beijing". This more nuanced US foreign and defense policies mean that the Bangsamoro region is a "geopolitical card" for the U.S. in its "vacuum war" with China and in the overall "rebalance" to Asia (Robert Kaplan calls this as defining China's maritime sphere of influence in Asia). The Bangsamoro region is a key region in order to have leverage over the Muslim maritime states of Indonesia and Malaysia and of course the Philippines vis-a-vis China. Below are two articles that I wrote sometime ago that demonstrate how the economic power of China can be put in play in countries that are its neighbors, for example, the State Grid Corporation of China buying the monopoly electricity grid operation of the Philippines with all that it implies in terms of national security (See "China grabs ‘power’ in the Philippines, while the U.S. preoccupied"). The other article "Philippines: U.S. triangulating the Aquino Presidency and the “wedge issue” of Moro separatism in Maritime Southeast Asia" shows the geopolitical games involving Bangsamoro among Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, US, China and Islamic countries. Dayuhan wanted these geopolitical issues to be highlighted more.

Philippines: U.S. triangulating the Aquino Presidency and the “wedge issue” of Moro separatism in Maritime Southeast Asia

By Ishak Mastura

July 19, 2010

Newly-elected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, more popularly known as “Noynoy”, took the reigns of power at noon of June 30, 2010 in Manila. The son of two Philippine democracy icons, Aquino, 50, succeeds Gloria Macapagal Arroyo whose stormy nine-year rule was rocked by four failed coup attempts and allegations of corruption, vote-rigging and human rights abuses, including the worst spate of killings of journalists in recent years in a so-called “democracy” punctuated by the infamous “Maguindanao Massacre” of November 23, 2009, wherein a group of 32 journalists was waylaid in a roadside ambush and killed as a result of a local political rivalry in the restive ethnic Moro[1] province of Maguindanao in the Philippines’ troubled south.

Some 500,000 attended Aquino's oath-taking at a seaside park in the capital Manila. Aquino aimed his speech at the many Filipinos exasperated at the Southeast Asian country's enduring problems that also include decades-long Moro separatist and Maoist insurgencies. While the Philippines has remarkably weathered the global financial crisis, Aquino has also expressed alarm at the ballooning national budget deficit, which he said could surpass $8.7 billion (400 billion pesos) this year.

In many elite circles of Manila and the Philippine oligarchy, Aquino was viewed as the favored candidate of the Philippines’ former colonial master, the United States, to win the presidency. According to Manila’s coffee-shop talk and political pundits, that the Americans favored Aquino over the other candidates was indicated by the fact that shortly before the elections on May 10, 2010, TIME magazine came out with Aquino on its cover and wrote a glowing article about him, while other candidates for the presidency noticeably did not get as much press in the foreign journals and news outfits dominated by the U.S.-led Western media.

Despite the Aquino family suffering from political persecution under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom some analysts say the Americans coddled and tolerated in the interest of the struggle against Communism in Southeast Asia as had happened in other far-flung corners of the Cold War, Noynoy’s father, the late martyred Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. was considered as America’s fair-haired boy due to his close ties to the U.S. intelligence community, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In one account, the participation of the Philippines in the secret American subversion of Indonesia in 1957-1958 (through American covert support of an uprising by rebel colonels against Sukarno), especially in the Christian enclave of Sulawesi, which made it a potential trigger for a separatist-religious conflict, was led by Ninoy Aquino.[2] Not only was he the conduit for the funds coming from then Philippine President Carlos Garcia, Ninoy Aquino even opened up a training camp for the Indonesian rebels in his home province of Tarlac. The account also cited Ninoy Aquino as the person responsible for transport and trade of arms from Taiwan to Sulawesi in Indonesia.

More recently, during the Anwar Ibrahim affair in Malaysia during the late 1990s, the Aquino family especially former president Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, mother of the current president, and her Cojuangco siblings dabbled in regional politics by capitalizing on her status as a “democracy icon” in Asia to show support to Anwar Ibrahim and his reformist groups’ plight under Prime Minister Mahathir’s regime. There were rumors that Corazon Aquino’s brother Jose “Peping” Cojuangco even gave tips to Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters about civil disobedience strategies and tactics based on the experience of the so-called “Yellow force” during the 1986 people power’s revolt that toppled Marcos and catapulted Corazon Aquino to the presidency. The wave of Color revolutions that the U.S. instigated in the post-Soviet space was patterned after the “Yellow revolution” of Corazon Aquino.

Given the history of the U.S. with the Aquinos, will the advent of a pro-American Aquino presidency signal a more active geopolitical Great Game in Maritime Southeast Asia with the Moro Question as the “wedge issue”?

The Aquino family is viewed as somewhat sympathetic to the Moros and their aspirations because Ninoy Aquino as Senator was responsible for exposing to the nation the so-called “Jabidah massacre” wherein in 1968 Moro recruits were massacred by their Philippine military trainers when they aborted Marcos’ plan to invade Sabah, Malaysia. The event signaled the rise of the Moro separatist rebellion and directly led to the formation of the first Moro revolutionary group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), whose vanguard role is now taken by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

But in the case of President Noynoy Aquino, there are strong elements in his Liberal Party, particularly his defeated running mate and chairman of the Liberal Party, Manuel “Mar” Roxas and Liberal Party Senator Franklin Drilon, who are perceived to be ardent Filipino “pseudo-nationalists” since they opposed in court the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (that was negotiated and initialed by the Arroyo administration peace panel with the MILF), which eventually led to the Supreme Court prohibiting its signing. Roxas is the grandson of Manuel Roxas, the first Philippine president under an independent Philippine Republic, who was handpicked by the Americans to lead the country just before they gave the Philippines its independence on July 4, 1946. However, such “pseudo-nationalists”, despite of or in spite of their history and identification with the U.S., can be very prickly about being viewed as American proxies such that for the May 2010 elections Mar Roxas even adopted a strident campaign slogan “Bayan Muna, Bago Sarili” (Country First, Before Self), which he has continued to espouse as a pseudo-political “cause”.

Wary of any potential resentments and even blowback from such Filipino “pseudo-nationalists”, the U.S. and its allies can rely on the Moro Question as an “insurance policy” and “wedge issue” much as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said of the British Raj, that he hoped that the tension between Hindus and Muslims would remain "a bulwark of British rule in India." According to one commentator:

“Religion has long played a role in the West's relationship to the rest of the world, but more as a way to divide populations than convert them. Ireland and India are cases in point. England invaded Ireland in 1170, but for the first 439 years it was a conquest in name only. In 1609, however, James I founded the Plantation of Ulster, imported 20,000 Protestant settlers, and introduced religious strife as a political tactic. By favoring Protestants over the native Catholics in politics and economics-the so-called "Ulster Privilege – the English pitted both groups against one another. The tactic was enormously successful, and England used it throughout its colonial empire. Nowhere were the British so successful in transplanting the Irish model than in India. But in India's case it was unnecessary to import a foreign religion. The colonial authorities had India's Muslim and Sikh minorities to use as their wedge. As the historian Alex von Tunzelmann argues in "Indian Summer," it was the British who defined India's communities on the basis of religion: "Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged."[3]

In this geopolitical web and intricate game of “nations and peoples” as well as of “ethnicities and religions”, the other Maritime Southeast Asian states are well and truly caught. This is because the Muslim-majority countries in Maritime Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, at one time or another have been involved in the search for the political settlement of the Moro Question. The Moro Question refers to the ethnic and sovereignty-based conflict in southern Philippines regarding the claim for emancipation of the Muslim Moro.

In 1996, Indonesia under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was the principal country to broker the failed Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the MNLF. However, as one enterprising researcher found out the real reason for Jakarta’s role in helping settle the Moro problem was not necessarily the former Suharto regime’s love for fellow Muslims in the Philippine south but the business expansion of the Jakarta oligarchy pioneered by Suharto’s closest and oldest business partner, Lim Sioe Liong, through the Salim group.[4] The Salim group is a major investor in the dominant telecommunications company in the country, and is involved in real estate deals in the Philippines as well.

Accordingly, Jakarta oligarchic business interests mainly wanted peace in southern Philippines to enable their business operations to expand in Mindanao without taking into consideration (or paying only lip service to) ‘Bangsa Moro’ (Moro Nation) interests, and to extort concessions and business franchises from the Manila government as a reward for mediating the Mindanao Conflict. True enough, after the 1996 peace agreement, the sister of Suharto, Sitti Hardiyanti Rukmana or Tutut obtained a build-operate-transfer mega-project to construct the 45-km Skyway Road Project in Manila through her Citra Consortium. Later on, this Suharto interest in the Skyway Road Project was sold off to a Malaysian conglomerate as Suharto fell from power.

In 1997 the Asian Financial Crisis happened and Indonesia imploded with the collapse of the Suharto regime. Indonesia became very busy with its own internal affairs and as such, the implementation of the peace agreement with the MNLF was neglected and the MNLF likewise suffered its own implosion because its erstwhile leader, Nur Misuari, was ousted from his leadership post and an executive council replaced him effectively splitting the MNLF into Misuari loyalists and those with the executive council. The MNLF lost any leverage it had with the Philippine government because its fighting forces were integrated into the Philippine military so that it no longer had any fighting forces on the ground and had been substantially defanged, except for Misuari’s small praetorian guard composed of his own ethnic Tausug tribal members based in the island of Sulu, which the military has hounded ever since.[5]

Invariably, Indonesia has sought to regain its lost influence in Mindanao with the Moros by using the current tripartite talks among the Philippine government, the OIC and the MNLF to review the implementation of the 1996 peace deal with the MNLF since the committee in the OIC that is handling the review is chaired by Indonesia. Admittedly, the MNLF is no longer a useful tool for the Indonesians to assert its regional hegemony of Muslim initiatives over Malaysia and Brunei, both of which are involved in the peace talks of the 12,000-strong MILF with the Philippine government. Moro sentiments on the ground are that Indonesia is an unreliable partner for the Moro cause and that Indonesia is a “sellout”. Indonesia according to one of their officials who was involved in the peace negotiations thought that their job was just to get the parties to sign a peace agreement but it was up to the parties to implement it. Indonesia suffering from its own ethnic separatist causes in Aceh and West Papua cannot espouse solidarity with the Moros for fear of being inconsistent with their defense of colonial borders.

Beginning in the last quarter of last year, Indonesia has regained some of its lost prestige with Moro revolutionaries now dominated by the MILF, when Muhammadiyah, the second largest moderate Islamist social movement in Indonesia with 30 million members, joined the International Contact Group, composed of Britain, Japan and Turkey and other international non-governmental organizations, that was formed for the Philippine government’s peace talks with the MILF in November last year. This year the Indonesian embassy in Manila sent a delegation to dialogue with the MILF leadership in the south about the possibility of Indonesia participating in the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team now composed of OIC countries, such as Brunei and Libya joined by Japan, the European Union and Norway, which body is monitoring the ceasefire and developments on the ground between the warring forces of the Philippine military and the MILF.

In contrast to the poor reception of the Indonesians with the Moros, Malaysia has reaped dividends ever since it provided a rear base of operations for the first large-scale Moro insurgent group, the MNLF during its beginnings and during the Mindanao war of the 70s. In fact, the MNLF’s successor, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces are led by militarily proficient but aging officers trained by ex-British Special Forces in Sabah, Malaysia in the 60s.[6] Moreover, according to Professor Julkipli Wadi of the University of the Philippines:

“Central in the Mindanao issue at that time was the configuration of the Moro struggle from previously ethnic and collaborative strands in the early 1900s into revolutionary and nationalist lines in 1960s onward. The rosary of Muslim movements that sprouted since then advanced the secessionist card against the Philippine government that ironically served the interests of Malaysia. The latter was not only saved from the venom of Tausug militants, but it also transferred the Moro threat to the Philippines. Indeed, Malaysians coddled the MNLF. However, Malaysia’s help was highly calculated enough only to aid distressed brothers in times of need and not an all-out resolution of what they desire. Malaysia knows fully well the implication of an independent Bangsamoro Republik. It would not only mean a re-opening of the Sabah claim. It would be a floodgate for Moro’s resurgence in the historic “Sulu zone” (Sipadan island included), a “sub-regional” area they once controlled. Moreover, Malaysia and the Philippines with geo-political schism used the Mindanao conflict in pursuit of their respective interest: the first as buffer politics by Malaysia against the Philippines in constricting the Moro rebellion in order to mute the Sabah claim; the second as source of legitimacy for whimsical national policy like the Declaration of Martial law in 1972.”[7]

Currently, Malaysia enjoys the upper hand over Indonesia in the regional game of hegemony in maritime Southeast Asia over the Moro population, the only distinct population and constituency in the maritime region capable of playing a role in the “balkanization” of the Southeast Asian archipelagos, since they have an armed population with a warring and raiding culture suffused by what the Americans call “a history of violence” wherein individual families and clans have access to high-powered firearms and other ordnance normally reserved for armies or SWAT Police units. Since 2001, Malaysia has acted as the facilitator of the peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government. The role of Malaysia as facilitator has been largely effective and it deployed in 2003 a Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team to monitor the ceasefire between the MILF and the Philippine military. Malaysia enjoys the good will of the Moros because the International Monitoring Team is viewed as a check on the Philippine military’s abuses and depredations on the Moro population and in fact, the International Monitoring Team’s coverage has been expanded to include the Sulu Archipelago, traditionally the MNLF’s stomping grounds but increasingly under the sway of the MILF.

Contrast the Malaysians’ savvy diplomacy to the strategic ineptness of the Indonesians, who failed to capitalize on the deployments of Indonesian military personnel under the Joint Monitoring Commission for the 1996 peace agreement of the MNLF. Now, despite the clamor of the MNLF, the Indonesians and the OIC no longer have any mandate to deploy their own international monitors because Indonesia itself in the OIC has been saying that the 1996 peace agreement has been effectively implemented by the Philippine government except for the socio-economic provisions which requires massive development funds from the OIC. The Philippine government has also delegitimized and discredited the MNLF that still have arms and who are still fighting the Philippine military in the small island of Sulu, who are labeled as Misuari Breakaway Group or are lumped together with the Abu Sayyaf.

In the manner of a multi-level geopolitical chess game, the rivalries in Maritime Southeast Asia of the Malaysians, Indonesians and the Filipinos with the Moro Question as the fulcrum or lever are taking place at the same time that the U.S. and China are vying for supremacy in Maritime Southeast Asia with the Moro Question also serving as a useful “geopolitical card”.

Since 2001, within the current context of the "war on terror", Fourth World independence movements have continued a phase marked by the disintegration of multi-national post-colonial states like the Philippines and Indonesia, and conflicts are now intensifying in significant locations – places of strategic importance for Great Power relationships such as in Mindanao with the ‘Bangsa Moro’.[8] And just as previous contextual chapters (like the Cold War) have confused the understanding of decolonization, so too the "war on terror" now overlaps with and obscures the fundamental nature of indigenous liberation movements, while simultaneously obscuring Great Power dynamics. Under the "war on terror" cover, the stage is set for Great Power conflict in many Fourth World theaters and also for a tsunami of sovereignty movements, possibly beginning with the Moros in Mindanao with regard to the emerging U.S.- China rivalry in East Asia.

In the U.S.-China rivalry in East Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, the Moros play the role of the "Joker" card. Traditionally, the use by the U.S. of the Fourth World is manifest outwardly in a foreign policy that is equally ambiguous in its recognition of indigenous nations within other states. Hence, the "Joker" card represents this ambiguity since the "Joker" has meaning and value assigned by the one who holds and plays it. Sometimes indigenous nations in other countries are useful to U.S. interests, and at other times, not. Usually, the U.S. stands by the principle of territorial integrity, which is a universal right of all states, codified in international law so that the exceptions to the rule are therefore most interesting, but such exceptions often are conducted in covert “special operations” of the CIA (or the U.S. military's Special Operations Command such as in Afghanistan and possibly in Mindanao), or outsourced to unofficial foreign policy agents, greatly increasing the challenge of perception from without.

In the case of the Moro liberation struggle, it is a Fourth World conflict that has its roots in ages past, most especially since Philippine independence from the United States at the end of World War II. The Philippine state has always been a largely Western project, and its control of largely-Muslim Mindanao and other southern islands has been the source of conflict since long before al-Qaeda’s existence. While there is attempt among security analysts to link the Moro struggle with al-Qaeda and the “war on terrorism”, it must be understood broadly as a Great Power theater focused on shipping lanes through and near the South China Sea, which in this case, the local theater of the Sulu archipelago, involves movement through the Sea Lines of Communication between the Sulu and Sulawesi seas. The U.S. was evicted from former bases in the Philippines (Clark Air Force Base, and the Subic Bay Naval Base), but now has returned to a highly strategic position that constrains Chinese movement in the region.

The U.S. is not alone in recognizing the potential of the Moros and their quest for a “Bangsamoro” homeland as a fulcrum or leverage and “geopolitical card” in Maritime Southeast Asia, which has the added advantage that it ultimately impacts the rich Northeast Asian countries of China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan with an issue that has significant resonance in the Islamic world not only in Southeast Asia but even in its heartlands of the Middle East. No wonder that the trans-Atlantic security partners of the U.S. have joined in this post-colonial struggle for the crucial maritime geopolitical spaces of East Asia. This is manifest in the presence of major North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers, Britain and Turkey including Japan, the principal treaty ally of the United States in the Far East, in the International Contact Group formed late last year for the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF. Another indication of the importance of the Moro Question to the U.S. and its trans-Atlantic partners is the fact that last month the European Union together with founding NATO member country Norway joined the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team.

As a "Joker" card, the U.S. and its trans-Atlantic allies probably have yet to fully utilize the Moros shrouded in ambiguity as their policy is in its support to the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF while supporting the Philippines militarily in its insurgency campaign against Moro militants of the Abu Sayyaf.

However, as reinforced by recent trends, the Philippines may yet find, as other countries seem to increasingly do in Asia, that its interests lie more with China instead of the U.S. by sheer logic of geography and due to the economic gravity of China's rise. Otherwise, it may find that it has nothing to gain by being caught on one side in the crossfire between the two, much less by being the target of Chinese retaliatory attacks on U.S. military facilities in the Philippines in case of conflict, and the Philippines may yet conclude that it has no interest in being at the receiving end of China’s missiles. Then if that day comes the utility of the Moros as a Fourth World "Joker" will probably come into play for the U.S. The U.S., much like what imperial Britain found out during their age of decline, would have need of such a "Joker" card since hegemonic decline has set-in for the U.S. and the "end of the Vasco Da Gama era" has been heralded.[9]

As it is, the rise of the U.S. to global pre-eminence which began in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, wherein the Philippines in the same year became a U.S. colony as a prize in that war, prefigured the end of the independence and autonomy of the Moro sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao with the signing of the Kiram-Bates treaty establishing a protectorate for the Sulu sultanate a year later. It is ironic that more or less 100 years later in the 21st century that the return of the U.S. military to Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago prefigures the ebb-tide of U.S. hegemonic power in Asia. The promise of a U.S. protectorate for the Moros under the 1899 Kiram-Bates Treaty was implemented only for a while, as the U.S. sought temporary tactical advantage while fighting the Filipino-American war; although a successor semi-independent Moro Province in Mindanao was established by the U.S. for a time after consolidating the Moro polity. Now, in the echoes of the U.S. presence in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in an age of "war on terror" against jihadists, there may be some advantage in recreating a sub-state for the Moros within a loose Philippine federation that will act as an interlocutor between the Islamic world and the West. Ultimately in terms of realpolitik, what the U.S. and NATO gain is a friendly base of operations vis-a-vis China in a "Bangsamoro sub-state" similar to U.S. and NATO basing strategy in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kosovo, both of which are semi-independent and autonomous.

The U.S. and its trans-Atlantic partners should avoid the strategic blunder of India when it lost its leverage in Sri Lanka through the total defeat of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam. Brahma Chellaney writing for Forbes magazine observed that China, clearly, was the decisive factor in ending the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka through its generous supply of weapons and its munificent aid.[10] Having been outmaneuvered by China's success in extending strategic reach to Sri Lanka in recent years, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo, lest it lose further ground in Sri Lanka. But India stands more marginalized than ever in Sri Lanka. Its natural constituency – the Tamils – feels not only betrayed, but also looks at India as a colluder in the bloodbath. India's waning leverage over Sri Lanka is manifest from the way it now has to jostle for influence there with arch-rivals China and Pakistan. Just like the Palestinian cause, the Moro cause is critical for the public or constituency that the U.S. and its trans-Atlantic partners seek to influence, i.e. the Islamic world, since the Moro cause together with Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan (and possibly Patani in southern Thailand) are the weather-vanes of Western engagement with the wider Islamic world. It is not coincidental that the OIC has taken up the Moro Question year-in and year-out in its agenda together with the issue of Palestine, especially since the Moro cause arose at around the same time that the OIC was organized in the wake of the Palestinian troubles.

Lastly, aside from addressing aspects of its China strategy, its convergence in the parallel U.S. strategic mission of confronting Islamic militants makes Mindanao ideal since it has been said that "the most intractable and urgent tasks facing the society of states in the early 21st century arise from the need, and great difficulties, of repairing the damage inflicted on the relationship between the Islamic world and the rest of the society of states during the 20th century."[11] By contrast, in the 19th century (i.e. the Concert of Powers period) the relationship was somewhat less fraught with rage and resentment on either side. There were many reasons for this, but one was that Islamic power was then embodied in a sovereign state — the old Ottoman Empire. The history of the 19th century or the Concert of Powers period induces consciousness of the advantages of having even a potential adversary embodied in a sovereign state. A sovereign state has a lot more to lose since it has much that can be held at risk by its potential adversaries: its cities; its economic interests; its infrastructure; and the lives of its citizens. The whole concept of deterrence rests on that fact. In contrast, the jihadists, as ‘non-state actors’, have no such interests to be held at risk, not even the members’ lives, since they hold, as an item of faith, that death in the cause is martyrdom.

A potential interlocutor in the ‘Bangsa Moro’ embodied in a "Bangsamoro sub-state", with whom some terms of co-existence could be discussed with jihadists, may just be what is needed to begin “repairing the damage inflicted on the relationship between the Islamic world and the rest of the society of states during the 20th century”. After all, the Moros have always viewed their struggle as the longest ‘jihad’ in the world against the Muslims’ perceived colonizers and oppressors in the West and its allies starting from the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippine islands in 1521 fresh from their 'Reconquista' of Spain from the Moors, or Moros in Spanish, which is why the Muslims in Mindanao ended up being called Moros by the Spanish in the first place.

As a postscript, President Aquino just recently named his chief negotiator for the peace talks with the MILF but he remains coy as to the third-country facilitator. The MILF has indicated that they are satisfied with almost 10 years of Malaysian facilitation and that changing facilitators would just derail the peace talks. In those 10 years Malaysia has emerged as the U.S. and its allies’ ace in the Mindanao peace process since it is playing a role similar to Jordan in the Middle East peace process. For now, the urgent task for the U.S. and its trans-Atlantic partners is to restart the peace talks soon before the one-year mandate of the International Monitoring Team ends in November. (END)

[1] The Moros are predominantly Muslim indigenous or aboriginal peoples with a history of struggles for self-determination and who are engaged in a sovereignty-based claim for a Bangsamoro homeland in Mindanao waged principally through a decades-long armed-struggle starting in the early 1970s, which is currently being led by the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

[2] Kahin, A. and Kahin, G., Subversion as Foreign Policy — The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia, University of Washington Press, 1995.

[3] Hallinan, C. “Religion and Foreign Policy”, Counterpunch at, October 2, 2007.

[4] Aditjondro, G., “Muslim Brotherhood, Or Pure Business Interests? The ASEAN-isation of the Suharto Family Business Interests in the Philippines “ internet article which can be accessed at the following website –…

[5] Criminal cases have been filed and arrest warrants issued against MNLF commanders loyal to Nur Misuari in Sulu, such as Khaid Ajibun and Habier Malik, who have been implicated in the explosion of an improvised explosive device that killed 2 U.S. soldiers in September of 2009.
[6] Tan, A. “Southeast Asia as the Second Front in the War Against Terrorism: Evaluating the Threat and Responses”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 15, No. 2 Summer 2003.

[7] Wadi, J., “Southeast Asia Regional Security and Mindanao Conflict”, edited by Kreuzer, P and Werning, R., Voices from Moro Land, Perspectives from Stakeholders and Observers on the Conflict in the Southern Philippines, Malaysia, 2007.

[8] Sills, M., “The GWOT and the Joker: Fourth World War in 2006”, Fourth World Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1, 2006. The Fourth World is the constellation of indigenous peoples and nations in conflict with states. It was first conceptualized during the 1970s – at a time when the wars of First World decolonization were widely perceived to be in their last chapters. The Fourth World concept has its roots in a revolutionary tradition that dates back at least to the 1770s, but its phase in the 1970s had begun in 1945 – at the end of World War II and the subsequent independence of new states in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and the Caribbean, states which largely became constituent members of the so-called Third World. Fourth Worldists of the 1970s argued that, while the phase of decolonization might have been in transition, the momentum had by no means been spent, and that there remained many chapters of liberation struggles yet to be written.

[9] The “end of the Vasco Da Gama era” has been coined by Cora Bell meaning the rise of an Asian century with China and India as its twin drivers may soon bring to a close sole Western-domination of the world begun by Vasco Da Gama's epic voyage to Asia.

[10] Chellaney, B. “How India lost out in Sri Lanka, Behind the Sri Lankan bloodbath, Forbes, October 9, 2009.

[11] Bell, C., The End of the Vasco Da Gama Era, the Next Landscape of World Politics, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, 2007.

China grabs ‘power’ in the Philippines, while the U.S. preoccupied

By Ishak Mastura

April 15, 2010

Not many foreign observers noticed but on March 17 this year, it was reported in the Philippine media that one of the country’s richest men, billionaire ethnic Chinese tycoon Henry Sy, Jr. through his One Taipan Holdings acquired 30% of National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) from Monte Oro Grid, a unit of the Ricky Razon group. Henry Sy is known as the owner of the country’s biggest chain of shopping malls, Shoemart, and he has likewise built massive shopping malls in China on the strength of his excellent relations with Chinese officials. The biggest holding in the NGCP is the 40% equity of the State Grid Corporation of China, a state-owned enterprise. The remaining 30% equity of NGCP is owned by another ethnic Chinese billionaire, Robert Coyiuto, Jr. through his Calaca High Power.

This business deal is actually a significant development not only in the Philippines but the entire region because according to the book, When China Rules the World, the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (2009) by Martin Jacques, as Chinese power in the region grows, the relationship between China and the overseas Chinese – who wield exceptional economic power in virtually every ASEAN country and whose self-confidence, status and position will be greatly enhanced by China’s rise – will become a growing factor in these countries. He also cites, the historian Wang Gungwu who argues that the overseas Chinese share many characteristics with other minorities: ‘But where the “Chinese” are totally different is [that] their “mother country” is near Southeast Asia, very large and populous, potentially powerful and traditionally contemptuous of the peoples and cultures of the region.’ Of course, in the Philippines the Chinese are known to put up dummy corporations to get away with the restrictions on foreign ownership of investments, so we don't really know what side deals the ethnic Chinese tycoons may have with the Chinese government-owned State Grid Corporation of China. Hence, the real winner in this seemingly innocuous business deal is China. Not a shot was fired but some would say that China has just trumped its rival the United States in its former colony, the Philippines.

The State Grid Corporation of China, which is a Chinese state-owned enterprise, in consortium with Filipino investors, after winning the bidding of the Philippine government for the franchise of the monopoly operations of the transmission of electricity in the power grid of the country, took over the management and operation of the power transmission system from the government-owned National Transmission Corporation in January of 2009. The NGCP is the corporate vehicle formed by the consortium of Monte Oro Grid Resources Corporation with 30% equity, Calaca High Power Corporation with 30% equity, and State Grid Corporation of China with 40% equity. The consortium was declared the winning bidder in the biggest government auction conducted by the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corporation in December 2007. A franchise with a term of 50 years was granted to NGCP under Republic Act No. 9511 signed into law in December of 2008.

This monopoly or sole control over the transmission system of the Philippines by China has very important implications for foreign investors not only in power generation but also for other foreign investments since they will be relying on China for the transmission of power or electricity for their operations. This strategic investment by China in the monopoly of the transmission system in the Philippines means that it has other foreign investors by the jugular.

As it is, the Philippines is in the midst of an “energy crisis”. As the “El Nino” drought phenomena has come, eight-hour brownouts have become the norm in some towns and villages in Mindanao, the second biggest island in this archipelago of 90 million people. Even the capital, Manila, suffers brownouts from time to time, practically everyday. Ostensibly, the “energy crisis” is the result of the hydropower dams in the archipelago slowing down its generation of power due to the lack rains to fill-up its catch basins with water. The rains have started sporadically in the past month but even if the rains have come, the lack of generating capacity throughout the Philippines is still a serious problem. For many Filipinos, who are experiencing the brownouts in the middle of an election campaign to elect their next President on May 10, the current brownouts have a sense of déjà vu since in the 90s, the Philippines also suffered from a similar “energy crisis” just as then President Corazon Aquino was leaving office after a six-year term. It took her successor President Fidel Ramos to solve the “energy crisis” by introducing Independent Power Producers, who were enticed to invest in power generation capacity through build-operate-transfer schemes. Since then investments in generating capacity have languished even though several government power plants have been privatized.

While the U.S. still has considerable leverage over the Philippines because of its past colonial history and affinity with the Filipinos, the leverage of the U.S. is dwindling preoccupied and distracted as it is with stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As quoted by Martin Jacques, “The balance of influence is shifting against the United States. In the last decade the Chinese have not done anything wrong in Southeast Asia. The Japanese have not done anything right, and the U.S. has been indifferent. So already Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and other states are defining their national interest as ‘Finlandization’ with respect to China. The U.S. will never be shut out of Southeast Asia completely, but there is less room for it now than in the past fifty years.”

Thailand and the Philippines are the treaty allies of the U.S. in Southeast Asia. Thailand is in the mainland and Philippines is in the maritime region of Southeast Asia. Thailand is in the throes of political turmoil and engaged in social re-engineering as its “deep state” monarchy grapples with modernization of its political and economic systems. In a paper entitled “Assessing 2010 Elections Automation in the Philippines,” the risk consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA) said it had found 14 danger signs that the elections were bound to run into a wall of problems, or worse, completely fail. “There is no doubt that May 10, 2010 will be the most important Philippine Election Day since independence in 1946,” according to the PSA (See Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 16, 2010). Asked why PSA considered the coming elections the Philippines’ most crucial, PSA director Pete Troilo said that in the next six years, “the differences between Asia’s winners and losers will become very clear.” “What side of that fence the Philippines will be on will be determined by the next administration. There’s a lot at stake and the country is trailing,” Troilo added. Geopolitically speaking, China and the U.S. will also be watching closely the upcoming Philippine elections to read the signs of which side of the fence the country will be leaning towards.

Will the instabilities in the countries, upon which the foundation of U.S. power in Southeast Asia rests, threaten it and present opportunities for China to wrest them from the U.S. vision of the world, or will these instabilities mean that U.S. influence can only grow in these two anchor countries (as U.S. global stability operations encompasses both)? That is the crucial question to ask since the age-old Chinese geopolitical strategy has always been premised on the idea that with crisis comes opportunity. In any event, the evolving “Finlandization” of the Philippines makes the strategic leverage of the U.S. in the Philippines dependent on its foothold in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, where upwards of 250 U.S. Special Forces have been deployed under the Philippines – Operation Enduring Freedom – Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) and where on the basis of a status of forces of agreement, the Pacific Command’s naval and marine fleet currently has a virtual run of the place, especially the seas surrounding Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, such as the Sulu Sea, the Moro Gulf and the Philippine Deep. The waters and airspace of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago have become important to the Pentagon’s development of its program of Prompt Global Strike vis-à-vis China because it is here that ballistic missile submarines and other U.S. military platforms can exercise deterrence over China and other Asian continental powers, as well as, the surrounding maritime Southeast Asian region. The South China Sea is increasingly becoming a Chinese lake and the U.S. military presence in the adjacent Sulu Sea in the guise of anti-terrorism operations against Abu Sayyaf militants provides excellent strategic cover for the U.S. to monitor Chinese naval activity so that they do not have to rub elbows with the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea.

However, in view of the growing “Finlandization” of the Philippines vis-à-vis China, which “Finlandization” is increasingly being viewed by its elite and the oligarchic leadership in Manila as something that is to their advantage, and in order to sustain in the longer run the level of U.S. military activity needed in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago for the Pentagon’s program of Prompt Global Strike and for overall preparedness for any military eventualities in the region, the U.S. together with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies will have to sooner or later create conditions similar to Kosovo in the Balkan peninsula, wherein Camp Bondsteel was established as a U.S. base in that strategic region. Just like the Balkans and the Caucasus, the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas known as the Tri-border Sea Area astride crucial Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), which has Mindanao at the heart of this maritime region of Southeast Asia, is strategic for the U.S. in terms of the geopolitics of the region. But more appropriately, the U.S. in the future may need to put up a missile defense shield in Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago similar to what was being planned in Poland and in the Czech Republic (before it was cancelled and moved to Romania) in order to counter China’s ballistic missiles that may be launched from Chinese submarines lurking in the South China Sea.

Given the “Finlandization” of the Philippines, this scenario of missile bases and a free hand or unfettered U.S. and NATO military activity in Mindanao can only be secured if a semi-independent Moro homeland is carved out of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago (but still within Philippine territory). The Moros are Muslim indigenous ethnic groups in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago that have been fighting for self-determination and their lost sovereignty for the past four decades through an insurgency or armed struggle. The vanguard of the Moro self-determination and sovereignty-based movement is the 11,000-strong revolutionary armed group or armed non-state actor, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is currently engaged in Malaysian-brokered peace talks with the Manila government for Moro self-rule. The peace talks between the government and the MILF have been stalled repeatedly by serious disagreements, followed shortly by eruptions of violence and both the Philippine government and the MILF in the waning days of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo are hoping to forge at least an “interim agreement” to preserve the gains of the past 11 years of peace talks for the next administration to continue.

Discussions of a constructive U.S. (and NATO) role in Mindanao typically focus on promoting security and development, but this approach fails to recognize a simple truth: “the traditional prerogatives of power in the southern Philippines are fundamentally incompatible with either. A thin veneer of democratic institutions covers a society that remains essentially feudal, conforming less to democratic ideals than to the style of the datus, the warrior chiefs of old. Leadership is personal and paternalistic and functions largely above the law; power flows from guns and money.”[1] The most destructive face of such Moro clan power manifested itself in the now infamous “Maguindanao Massacre” that transpired last November, wherein 57 people (including 31 journalists in the worst case in recent history of killings of media people) were massacred by the private militia of a powerful Moro clan to stop a political rival from filing his candidacy.
As such, as they become more embedded locally, some analysts say the U.S. troops may have to eventually deal with problems other than security, and foremost of which is the undemocratic and corrupt nature of local political power, on the premise that the ultimate success of stability operations (formerly the “war on terror”) hinges not on the physical elimination of groups like the Abu Sayyaf, but in resolving the absence of democratic politics in Muslim Mindanao by ending the domination of the political clans.[2] Eliminating clan power in order to have a more democratic government in Muslim Mindanao would require the U.S. and its NATO allies through the Mindanao peace process to engage in state rebuilding or reconstruction of a semi-independent Moroland within Philippine territory to usher in a new set of leaders more representative of Moro popular interests in the context of modernization and globalization.

The MILF then becomes the key modernizing element of local politics in southern Philippines within the context of a unified Moroland. After all, said one observer: “Whatever the historical limitations of the MNLF (or the MILF for that matter), given the incontrovertible evidence of their mass following – larger so far than what the CPP/NPA could amass at any given encounter with the AFP – and given the class structure of the Moro people (the majority of whom are exploited peasants and workers) vis-à-vis the majority of Christian Filipinos, there is no question that they genuinely represent the historic grievances and aspirations of their community. To be sure, large-scale political mobilization of Moro combatants with their civilian base may be viewed as participatory democracy in action, grassroots democracy in actual practice.”[3]

Recently on April 2, Norway became the first Western (and NATO) country to evince interest in putting “boots on the ground” (albeit in the guise of civilian or police contingents) through its participation in the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team composed of contingents from Japan, Brunei and Libya, that is monitoring the ceasefire in Mindanao between the government and the MILF. In September last year, an International Contact Group composed of Turkey, Japan and the United Kingdom of Great Britain was established for the peace talks with the MILF. So the active involvement of the NATO countries of the United Kingdom, Turkey and Norway in the Mindanao peace process means that NATO has put a significant stake in the Mindanao peace process towards the possible creation of a sub-state or semi-independent Moro homeland in Mindanao, where NATO can establish its bases and staging ground for military activities in the region. It goes without saying that the involvement of these NATO countries in the Mindanao peace process has probably been undertaken with the tacit approval of the U.S. as a counter-hegemonic exercise vis-à-vis China in light of Western geopolitical interests in the region. (END).

[1] Rogers, S. “Beyond the Abu Sayyaf, Lessons of Failure in the Philippines”, 83 Foreign Affairs 18, 2004.

[2] Abinales, P. and Amoroso, D., “The Withering of Philippine Democracy”, Current History, Sept. 2, 2006.

[3] San Juan, E., “Ethnic Identity and Popular Sovereignty: Notes on the Moro Struggle in the Philippines”, Ethnicities; 2006; 3; 391, p. 413 at


Mon, 01/07/2013 - 8:51pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I'm not in any way sure that those really are "the overarching goals and objectives of the United States", but that's another question. In terms of the Bangsamoro, the outcome of the agreement will be one of three things: visible progress toward peace and economic regeneration, a relapse into full scale war, or something in between. None of these eventualities will have any recognizable impact on the global or US economy. None will have any significant impact on the pushing and shoving going on in the South China Sea. No outside power is likely to gain a strategically significant military foothold in the area.

What happens will have a huge impact on the people of the Bangsamoro region. it will have somewhat less impact on the Philippines as a whole. In terms of the GWOT there would be some gain in a viable peace agreement, but the SE Asian region has turned out to be a lot less critical to that picture than it was once claimed to be (does anyone remember "the second front in the war on terror"?)

If the conflict is resolved (a big if), that would be an accomplishment: ending conflict is always desirable, and important lessons could be learned that might apply to conflict elsewhere. Whether or not that constitutes a "triumph" would depend largely on how you define that word.

In determining whether the referenced agreement should be described as a "triumph" for western diplomacy -- or simply as a baby step in the right direction -- should we first look at the overarching goals and objectives of the United States?

Herein, let me propose that the overarching goals and objectives of the United States might be stated as:

To cause other states and societies (especially those of some importance or potential importance to the global economy) to become - and/or to remain -- more-cohesive, more-democratic and more-capitalist entities who are better alinged with the western world.

With this (or a more-correct/better articulation of the overarching goals and objectives of the United States) as our starting point, then let us ask:

Does the referenced agreement provide a serious framework for -- and/or otherwise make great strides toward -- helping us achieve our goals and objectives?

If the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!" then this agreement may indeed represent a "triumph for Western diplomacy."


Tue, 01/15/2013 - 6:00pm

In reply to by peter parker

Just to clarify: I did not mean to suggest that the Philippines has offered any site in the Cordillera or elsewhere in the Philippines for a US radar site. I do not know of any such offer and I do not believe that any such offer has been made. I just mentioned that were such a site to be contemplated, the old US radar site on Mt Sto Tomas would be a location preferable to any in the Bangsamoro. It's 600km closer to China, there are no security or force protection issues, there's existing infrastructure in place, logistic suppoert is easily managed through the former US Naval Air Station and port at Poro Point, Subic Bay with it's significant US presence is close by. I'm not in any way a radar expert, but I understand that there are also advantages to a site at 2000m altitude directly overlooking the ocean, which is why the site was chosen for the radar installation in the first place.

There would not in any event be competition between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine Government to attract such installations. The Bangsamoro government will have no capacity to negotiate such agreements independently; if the US wants facilities (or if the Philippines wants the US to have facilities) the negotiations will be between the US and Philippine governments, whether in the Bangsamoro or elsewhere in the country.

I don't think the Archipelagic Sea Lane bill has a chance at becoming law, and even if it did it wouldn't make much difference. The Philippine military has no power to deny the Chinese passage, law or no law, and if the US decided to contest passage (only an issue if there were an actual war in progress) if would do so regardless of any Philippine law.

I do not think it appropriate to frame a conflict between the US and China over the South China Sea, with others standing by. It's more a conflict between the Chinese and the Philippines/Vietnam, with the US trying to work the conflict toward its own ends. Geography dictates that China will have a major role in the Sea under any dispensation. That's ok with the US as long as the Straits of Malacca remain open. The trump card on that issue is not any US presence in the area but the US capacity to respond to a closure by interfering with Chinese shipping far outside the Chinese sphere of influence. Far from being a joker or a trump card, the Bangsamoro seems to me relatively peripheral to the issue. It's a land based entity. It has no armed force or foreign policy of its own. It may have nominal "territorial waters" but it will have no capacity to control those waters; that will be Manila's function. There are no strategically significant military installations, nor is there any known plan to develop any.

I've said this before, but to me the minimal US military presence in Mindanao has little relevance to China and is an anachronistic relic of the GWOT, not an early step in the Asian Pivot.

peter parker

Tue, 01/08/2013 - 10:13pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Thanks again for your comments. Ironically, just the possibility of US facilities in Bangsamoro conversely spur the Philippines to offer other sites to the US in Cordillera, for example, so in the end the US gets its facilities (if it wants to) on the cheap. It is a sad fact that the Bangsamoro or more appropriately "Moros" are the "red flag" to the Filipinos similar to what the "red flag" is to the fighting bull (Filipino antipathy towards Moros is a result of centuries long Moro-Spanish wars and while Filipinos fought against the Moros for Spain, the Moro sultanates, who were not subjugated by Spain, raided Filipinos and to a certain extent this divide is an identity marker for Filipinos that it struggles to overcome and which division the US at first acknowledged when it came to the Philippine islands through the Schurman Commission). Unfortunately, the Moro "red flag" gets the goat of Filipinos and makes them irrational and subject to manipulation. The SLOCs in the Mindanao-Sulawesi arch is one "vacuum" that the US strategic interests require that it fills because the South China Sea is becoming "Lake Beijing" and the long term geopolitical trend identified by Robert Kaplan requires the US to pay attention to it. Not all vacuums of failed states or failed regions are the same or equal and if you read Grygiel's original thesis he says this vacuum war only happens in strategically important regions and as you pointed out the US can work through proxies to fill the vacuum such as in southern Somalia with the Kenyans. That's why Robert Kaplan and other geopolitical realists look to geopolitics because there is a certain determinism to it but of course with the caveat of human capacity and human intervention being able to overcome them. The US has, for example, increased its Naval ship visits and passage through the waters of the Philippines, practically everywhere. If you recall Sen. Trillanes was accused as a Chinese interlocutor on the Scarborough Shoal. It turns out that Sen. Trillanes was the one that filed the bill on designating archipelagic sea lanes that would primarily benefit China. As I wrote once:


By Ishak Mastura

July 10, 2012

"While the world has been riveted for months now on the naval standoff between the Philippines and China over control of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a potentially more serious geopolitical competition between China and the U.S. for nominal control of the maritime lanes and air space of the Philippines has been going on since last year. In March last year, the Philippine Congress began deliberating the passage of a law that will designate “archipelagic sea lanes” in the country in accordance with United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). An "archipelagic sea lane" is a route normally used for international passage through archipelagic waters. While in them and the adjacent territorial sea, vessels and aircraft may travel in normal mode including overflight of aircraft and submerged sailing by submarines. Once an archipelagic State, working through the International Maritime Organization, designates "archipelagic sea lanes", vessels and aircraft are only authorized to engage in transit passage through those lanes. Unlike innocent passage through archipelagic waters which may be suspended temporarily for security reasons, archipelagic sea lane passage cannot be suspended by the archipelagic State.

However, the potential passage of the law in the Philippine Congress designating “archipelagic sea lanes” presents the U.S. military with a dilemma because the internal waters and airspace of the Philippines that have been their privileged domains through the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement that the U.S. signed with the Philippines will likely be opened up to China’s navy, its warships, aircrafts and submarines.[1] What is crucial is that China’s armed forces using the “archipelagic sea lanes” in the Philippines will have unhindered direct access from the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea traversing the Sulu Sea. As one analyst pointed out – since China’s JL-2 intercontinental ballistic missiles can’t reach Los Angeles from the South China Sea, Type 094 submarines need to enter the international waters of the Philippine Sea, where the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force conduct intense anti-submarine warfare operations.[2]

The following sea lanes were proposed:

Archipelagic Sea Lane 1: Philippine Sea – Balintang Channel – South China Sea

Archipelagic Sea Lane 2: Philippine Sea – Surigao Strait – Bohol Sea – Sulu Sea – Nasubata Channel – Balabac Strait – South China Sea

Archipelagic Sea Lane 3: Celebes Sea – Basilan Strait – Sulu Sea – Mindoro Strait – South China Sea

The archipelagic sea lanes 2 and 3 pass through the volatile waters of the Sulu archipelago and the Sulu Sea where the bulk of U.S. Special Forces are deployed under Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines ostensibly to conduct anti-terrorism operations against Abu Sayyaf but more relevantly to serve as forward deployed forces for the U.S. military as they prowl the maritime and air space in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago as part of its strategy towards China.

As of now, the U.S. military footprint in JSOTF-P is light limited to around 600 military personnel and they are in no danger of being subjected to hostile probes by China.

However, the access privileges that the U.S. military has in Philippine archipelagic waters is a premium that they will have to share with other countries once the law is passed designating "archipelagic sea lanes" for international sea-borne and air-borne traffic, which will surely include passage by China's warships, submarines and aircraft. Although it seems inconceivable now, but as China's military power grows, activities of the U.S. military in Philippine territory (including for its planned Prompt Global Strike system in the area) may be hampered if China conducts regular naval and air patrols from the South China to the Philippine Sea using the "archipelagic sea lanes" in the Philippines, which patrols cannot be hindered by the Philippines once they are established under UNCLOS.

The subtext and context of a "vacuum war" between the U.S. and China in the designation of "archipelagic sea lanes" in the waters surrounding the "failed" or fragile or ungoverned space of the Muslim areas in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago makes the struggle for the establishment (within Philippine territory and sovereignty and not separate) of a self-governing or autonomous homeland for the Bangsamoro, i.e. the 13 Muslim tribes of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, which will likely have its own territorial waters, geopolitically more significant than ever. The Bangsamoro have been claiming that when the United States handed over Moroland, (the unincorporated territory consisting of Muslim Sultanates in Mindanao and Sulu which the Spanish never fully conquered) to the nascent Philippine Republic, there was no "plebiscitary consent" on the part of the Moros and in fact they vigorously protested to the United State about becoming part of the Philippines. According to Grygiel, failed states or failed regions (a.k.a. ungoverned territories or spaces in security parlance) are not only a source of domestic calamities; they are also potentially a source of great power competition that in the past has often led to confrontation, crisis and war. The failure of a state creates a vacuum that, especially in strategically important regions, draws in competitive great-power intervention.

In geopolitical terms, whoever dominates and curries favor with the Bangsamoro people (and the geopolitical space they inhabit) becomes the master of these Sea Lines of Communication that are becoming more important than ever as East Asia becomes the front-line of the contest for dominance and primacy between China and the U.S. A zone like Iraqi Kurdistan (which is still part of Iraq and not an independent state) may be necessary for the Bangsamoro in order to bring stability to these important Sea Lines of Communication wherein different countries, principally China and the U.S. but also Australia, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, EU countries and other East Asian countries can have various interactions with each other with less Westphalian limitations. Without a zone like Iraqi Kurdistan for the Bangsamoro the competition and rivalries between important states in those sea lanes are liable to generate more friction in the coming years to the detriment of regional stability than if there is an autonomous Bangsamoro “neutral zone” while safeguarding Philippine territorial integrity at the same time. Thus, more than ever the international community (but especially the United States due to its unique history in the region) will have to continue supporting and prodding both parties in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the principal Muslim secessionist group, to bring about the resolution of the armed conflict in Mindanao and Sulu archipelago and the establishment of self-rule or home rule for the Bangsamoro."

[1] The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, which took effect in 1999, opened the Philippines to visits of aircrafts, ships and vessels at the choice of the U.S. While in 1991 the U.S. forces were limited to 4 major ports, now it has access to 22 ports. The VFA re-opened the doors to the return of U.S. troops in the country, albeit “temporary” and its warships made port calls, its planes refueled, its soldiers rotated through the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines based in Mindanao, and regularly on and off joint military exercises were held. Furthermore, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) signed in 2002 and renewed in 2008 grants the United States basing services; support services such as billeting, medical services, operations support, storage; use of facilities, training manpower resources servicing; setting up of infrastructures, housing, storage, roads; and expands the VFA so that not only 22 ports but also the entire country can provide facilities, in land, sea and air space. (END)

[2] Kotani, T., “Why China Wants South China Sea”, The Diplomat, July 18, 2011.


Sat, 01/05/2013 - 9:05pm

In reply to by peter parker

Thank you for the detailed reply. I'm not sure how up to date I am, as I haven't lived on Mindanao since the 80s, but I try to keep in touch with what goes on and get back when I can. I live up in the Luzon Cordillera now so that's not all that often, but I've had loose plans for a trip for a while. It might happen one day.

I'm mainly curious about the local influences on and consequences of these developments, while you seem more focused on the external influences and consequences. That naturally produces a degree of disagreement. That doesn't mean someone's right and someone's wrong, it's just a difference in perspective. Just to illustrate that, there are some specific questions and disagreements I have with the contentions above...

First, I think you're overestimating the degree of autonomy the proposed Bangsamoro will have. The draft agreement clearly puts Manila in control of foreign policy and defense. Unless the agreement is radically revised in ways that would surely be unacceptable to the Government, the Bangsamoro will have no armed forces beyond police and no capacity to negotiate treaties or to independently agree to host a foreign military presence. Any such agreement would still have to be negotiated with Manila. Any foreign military installation or activity would be subject to the terms of the Philippine Constitution and would be no less on Philippine soil than installations or activities in, say, Subic.

I would have to question the hypothesis that failed states and ungoverned spaces necessarily draw great power competition. With all due respect to Mr. Grygiel, this theory does not appear to be consistent with the actual experience of failed states and ungoverned spaces. We see no particular rush, for example, to fill the vacuum that has existed in Haiti for several decades. There's no interest in moving into Somalia, despite the presence of groups associated with AQ and the real irritation posed by piracy. Even in failed states with significant resources, such as the Sudan and the DRC, the US in particular has been content to leave the ground to the Chinese. There may be some concern that the vacuum might be filled by someone else, but that's balanced by an equally real concern that an attempt to fill a vacuum could draw the US into an expensive and politically controversial quagmire. Of course the US might choose to compete for a vacuum if the risk was perceived as manageable and there was some very tangible gain in sight, but it cannot be assumed that an ungoverned space necessarily produces great power competition to fill that space.

I would question the contention that the very minimal US military presence is aimed at filling the vacuum: it looks to me more designed to try to build the Philippine capacity to fill the vacuum. I also question the contention that the US military presence is keeping the Chinese out. China does not typically try to build influence through military presence; their strategy is typically to lead with aid and investments. The US military presence does not in any way obstruct or preclude such activity: if the Chinese wanted to build influence in Mindanao they could do so, using the tactics they've employed elsewhere, regardless of any US military presence. Is there any tangible evidence of unusual Chinese activity or interest in Mindanao generally or the Bangsamoro area in particular? I don't think we can reasonably postulate a "vacuum war" between the US and China without some real, tangible evidence of Chinese interest or engagement.

I see no reason to assume a hidden agenda or ulterior motive behind the US presence. Again, without evidence to the contrary I would presume it to be a WYSIWYG situation.

I don't see how the outcome of the Bangsamoro negotiations has any impact on the ability of US vessels and aircraft to operate in the Celebes or Sulu seas, unless the Chinese were to move military forces in the area, which is not something the Philippine government would agree to. The US has no naval or air bases in the Bangsamoro area and shows no sign of wanting any. US vessels and aircraft will be able to operate in the area no matter what happens on land.

The idea that the US intends to set up radar facilities in Bangsamoro territory seems extremely speculative to me... has there been any actual mention of such a plan? It seems very unlikely to me. A radar facility on Mt Ragang would be no less in Philippine territory than a radar facility at the old US radar site on Mt Sto Tomas in Benguet, which is a far more desirable location for many reasons. The security situation alone would be a strong reason for the US to avoid placing any such facility in Bangsamoro territory: it's well known that MILF base commands on Mindanao have links to AQ, have hosted a JI presence, and are not fully controlled by the MILF central committee. It's possible that a successfully implemented agreement might in some distant future improve the situation to a point that would make it a potential location for a US facility, but that's long-term speculation at this point. In any short to medium term sense security and force protection considerations would be a strong argument against positioning such facilities in the Bangsamoro area.

There has been some concern that US facilities on Philippine soil could draw the Philippines into a fight between the US and China, but in the last few years we've also seen the emergence of an inverse US concern that overcommitment to the Philippines could drag the US into a conflict. Despite much urging from the Philippine side that US is clearly unwilling to commit to defense of Philippine territorial claims and has been very restrained about provision of armaments to Manila. I'd say at this point the US is more concerned about getting dragged into a fight by its relationship with the Philippines than the other way around.

While there are important shipping lanes passing through the generic tri-border area, most really don't come that close to the Bangsamoro area. The Bangsamoro will have no independent navy or air force, nor is it likely to host any military bases, so it's hard to see how the internal political affairs of the Bangsamoro will have much impact on them.

Overall, I'd say that in my opinion the influences on and impact of the Bangsamoro negotiations are and will be primarily local, and the US presence in Mindanao is less an opening gambit in the Asian Pivot than an anachronistic residue of the GWOT... but again that's just my perspective. While speculation about future development and hidden agendas is always interesting, conclusions must ultimately be based on hard evidence. We'll have to evaluate that as it emerges, I suppose.

My own expectation is that the agreement in fact will produce very little change. Autonomy agreements in the Philippines have typically achieved little beyond the insertion of one more layer of bureaucracy. That's intentional, of course: the intent is not to produce real change but to co-opt rebel leaders and groups by giving them positions and getting them sucking on the patronage teat. I honestly don't see how that changes things, beyond putting a few former rebels into contention for local positions. If Basilan is still run by the Akbars or the Salappudins or Jolo by the Tans, what difference does it make if they are parts of a nominal Bangsamoro? They will still be personal fiefdoms in all ways that matter. For me the key to peace and progress in Mindanao (not only in the Bangsomoro side of the island, but in the NPA-affected areas in the east as well) is de-feudalization and the need to bring the dominant political clans within the rule of law. This agreement may be significant, if it provides an opportunity to advance toward that goal. If it doesn't, it's likely to be one more entry in the already over-piled scrap heap of failed efforts.

PS: easiest way to get in touch with other members here is to register on the "Council" side, which allows private message and e-mail contact.

PPS: Forgot to mention this:

<i>the Bangsamoro territorial space with the latent claim of the US to it as its former colonial possession, which was given to the Philippines at the time of its independence in 1946 on the unstated condition that it will be able to govern the Moros, provides the US plausible claims on the use of that territory for its containment strategies towards China</i>

Has there ever been any indication that the US believes such a claim exists? Any mention of such a claim or potential claim? I do not believe that any US intent to manifest such a claim has ever been evident, nor do I think such intent would be even remotely acceptable to the Philippine government or anyone else in SE Asia. The idea of the US breaking off part of the Philippines for its own use as a nominal protectorate seems way beyond speculative to me.

peter parker

Fri, 01/04/2013 - 8:36pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan, Thank you very much for your comments. They really show a deep, abiding and up to date knowledge and understanding of Mindanao and its peoples. I am more of a student and analyst of the geopolitics of Mindanao, the Bangsamoro and the peace process (which has as its subtext the geopolitical contest between the US and China for mastery of the East Asia region up to the Western Pacific). And the questions you raised at the beginning of your comments are really at the heart of what I write about. You are correct that I did not build up enough on the "great game" in the article and this was on purpose because I had two other articles in mind dealing with the issues you pointed out regarding a supposed "great game". I have been writing about the geopolitics of the area for a long time so if you give me your e-mail I will include you in my e-mail list. You can get in touch with me through Col. (ret.) David Maxwell.

So below are two articles on the geopolitics of Mindanao, the Bangsamoro and the peace process that hopefully explain for you and other readers here what are the geopolitical stakes in Mindanao and the peace process, particularly for the United States (vis-a-vis China and the South China Sea and wider Asia-Pacific). I am really grateful to ROBERT KAPLAN, the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, for coming out with his book on geopolitics, "The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and The Battle Against Fate" (2012), since his book crystalized for me what I had been writing about all these years on the geopolitics of Mindanao, the Bangsamoro and the peace process.

The articles below are: (1) "South China Sea: The Geopolitical Significance of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch" and (2) "Philippines: Importance of Bangsamoro in the U.S. pivot to Asia and to its planned X-band radar in Southeast Asia". Western powers are always cooperating and competing but in Mindanao they are there to observe how to take advantage of the contest for mastery between the US and China (See my article "Geopolitical Games and Malaysian Mediation in the Philippines" at the website of Jindal Journal of International affairs at

If you have plans to visit in Cotabato City, please get in touch with me through David Maxwell who can give you my e-mail as I would like to meet you and get some of your views and perspectives.

South China Sea: The Geopolitical Significance of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch

November 20, 2012

By Ishak Mastura

United States (US) President Barack Obama is set to defy Beijing's protests and use the East Asia Summit in Cambodia this week to raise concerns over South China Sea, especially to pressure China on the highly sensitive issue of a code of conduct that would govern behavior in the contested waters.[1] The US persistence on the South China Sea issue is probably because, as geopolitics expert Robert Kaplan believes, the US-China relationship will not only be determined by such bilateral and global issues as trade, debt, climate change, and human rights, but more importantly by the specific geography of China’s potential sphere of influence in maritime Asia.[2]

The focus of this “great game” between the US and China is the South China Sea where the Chinese want to have hegemony over the sea just like what the US enjoys in the Caribbean Sea. The South China Sea has been called the Mediterranean of Southeast Asia. Now, if you consider or take the view of the semi-enclosed South China Sea as a "maritime heartland", what then is its "maritime rimlands"?

One of the most important interconnectors and "maritime rimlands" in relation to the South China Sea is the maritime crescent from the Sulu Sea, the Moro Gulf towards the Sulawesi (Celebes) Sea, which forms the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch, also known as the Tri-Border Sea Area bounded as it is by the three maritime states of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf are part of the geographic space of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao while the Sulawesi Sea is part of North Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Sulu Sea is named after the Sulu Archipelago populated by various Muslim Moro tribes and the Moro Gulf is called as such because its surrounding coastal areas are predominantly Bangsamoro.[3]

While the US armed forces has logistics access and visiting forces agreement with the littoral countries of the South China Sea, in particular the Philippines and Malaysia, it cannot have permanent bases there because those countries don't want to be caught between China and the US in case of a shooting war for the commons of the South China Sea, or to unnecessarily provoke China. Given its lack of permanent bases in the “maritime rimlands” of the South China Sea, where can the US have some prerogatives to use those maritime and air spaces to preposition its forces, as well as, to use those areas to patrol the “maritime rimlands” of the South China Sea?

The Bangsamoro region is a failed (or failing) region or an ungoverned space in the parlance of security experts. The Bangsamoro region is at the geographic center of the Tri-Border Sea Area in Southeast Asia, which comprises the territory of three maritime states, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. As described by RAND – "this zone constitutes a single geopolitical space that affects the political stability of the larger Southeast Asian maritime domain."[4] By default, it is the “ungoverned spaces" of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch[5], especially the Bangsamoro areas in Mindanao including its maritime and air spaces, which have become the maneuver area of the submarines, warships, aircraft and Special Forces of the US in the guise of counterterrorism and stability operations. Moreover, the Bangsamoro territorial space with the latent claim of the US to it as its former colonial possession, which was given to the Philippines at the time of its independence in 1946 on the unstated condition that it will be able to govern the Moros, provides the US plausible claims on the use of that territory for its containment strategies towards China, and in particular, its strategies towards the South China Sea.

The Pentagon's JSOTF Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines is based in Zamboanga City facing the Sulu Archipelago and the Sulu Sea and it also has a presence in Cotabato in Central Mindanao fronting the Moro Gulf, the maritime heart of the Bangsamoro territory in Mindanao. This US military presence is not just mere happenstance since, without the US presence in Bangsamoro, there will be a vacuum that will probably be filled by China, the aspiring regional hegemon. By occupying the vacuum in Bangsamoro and the wider seascape of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch, the US precludes China’s sphere of influence in maritime Asia and defines its limits. On such specific geography the US-China relationship hinges according to Robert Kaplan making Bangsamoro important to world affairs. This also has relevance to so-called "vacuum wars" and the behavior of Great Powers.

According to Jakub Grygiel – “The failure of a state [or parts of it] creates a vacuum that, especially in strategically important regions, draws in competitive great-power intervention…The interest of these great powers is not to rebuild the state or to engage in “nation-building” for humanitarian purposes but to establish a foothold in the region, to obtain favorable economic deals, especially in the energy sector, and to weaken the presence of other great powers…The power vacuums created by failed states attract the interests of great powers because they are an easy way to expand their spheres of influence while weakening their opponents or forestalling their intervention. A state that decides not to fill a power vacuum is effectively inviting other states to do so, thereby potentially decreasing its own relative power."[6]

Thus, the countries involved in the Mindanao peace process, particularly in the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the primary secessionist group in Bangsamoro, can probably justify their intervention among other reasons because of a China-US "vacuum war" for the ungoverned spaces of Bangsamoro in Mindanao.[7] In an unplanned division of labor, it is the US military presence in Bangsamoro in Mindanao that is occupying that vacuum, while the international community’s involvement in the peace process allows the conditions in the region to improve to bring about stability and eventually the “failed region” or ungoverned space is strengthened. On the other hand, if there is future instability in the region and without the US presence there, then China as it grows economically and militarily may be tempted to fill the vacuum in that region just as it is attempting to do so in the face of a US retreat from Afghanistan.

This is why the “great game” in the South China Sea, which is the front and center of the contest for domination of the approaches to the rich East Asian region, is going to be determined by domination of the “maritime rimlands” of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch (also known as the Tri-Border Sea Area). The fact that these maritime and air spaces are less crowded with ships and aircrafts transiting or using their Sea Lines of Communication, as compared to the South China Sea or the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, make them that much more ideal as a maneuver area for the US armed forces. As such, the assertion by some analysts that what happens in Mindanao is largely irrelevant to the Asia-Pacific "great game" since no critical sea lanes are affected; there are no strategically significant air or sea ports or practical basing locations, is easily disputed. Even so, in the Tri-Border Sea Area – “Important shipping lanes pass from the Makassar Strait between Sulawesi and Borneo through the Celebes Sea to East Asia. These routes include one across the Sulu Sea to the Surigao Strait (between Mindanao and Leyte), used by ships traveling between Southeast Asia and the Pacific; across the Sulu Sea to the Balabac Strait (between Palawan and Sabah) and the Mindoro Strait (west of Mindoro island), used by ships traveling between Australia and southern China; and one east of Mindoro and then across the San Bernardino Strait to the Pacific Ocean.”[8] (END)

[1] “Defying China protests, Obama wants to talk about South China Sea”, Agence France-Presse, November 20, 2012.

[2] Kaplan, R., The Revenge of Geography, What the Map Tells Us About the Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Random House, New York, 2012, p. 217.

[3] The term Moro or Bangsamoro refers to indigenous peoples, who are natives of the Sulu archipelago, parts of Central and Southwestern Mindanao, and parts of Palawan in the Philippines, and parts of Sabah in neighboring Malaysia at the time of conquest or colonization. There are at least 13 ethno-linguistic groups or Muslim tribes who are referred to as Moros. Other non-Muslim tribes in Mindanao by self-ascription are part of Bangsamoro. The territory predominantly inhabited by Moros is also referred to as Bangsamoro, which literally means “Moro Nation”.

[4] Rabasa, A. and Chalk, P., “Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia, The Coast Watch System of the Philippines”, RAND, March 2012.

[5] See Rabasa, A., Et. Al., “Ungoverned Territories, Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks”, RAND, 2007 where the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch is interchangeable with the Tri-Border Sea Area.

[6] “Vacuum Wars”, The American Interest, July/August 2009.

[7] An International Contact Group comprised of Britain, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey was established in 2009 for the peace talks being facilitated by Malaysia between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while an International Monitoring Team composed of military and civilian monitors led by Malaysia with the participation of the European Union, Japan, Indonesia, Brunei, Libya and Norway is keeping the ceasefire in Mindanao.

[8] Supra note 2.

Philippines: Importance of Bangsamoro in the U.S. pivot to Asia and to its planned X-band radar in Southeast Asia

By Ishak Mastura

December 11, 2012

In August this year, it was reported that the Pentagon has been discussing with Japan a new radar installation on a southern Japanese island.[1] However, an eventual installation in Southeast Asia would complete a more robust defense system if a location can be found. Japan and the U.S. have decided not to put the new radar facility on Okinawa, given tensions over the American military presence there but U.S. officials have mentioned the Philippines as a possible radar site in Southeast Asia.[2] “If they are moving down to Southeast Asia, they are probably making an effort to counter Chinese missile systems,” Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said of the reported missile defense plan.[3] He added that “The Chinese would probably think about how they would have to counter these counters, and that would probably mean acquiring more systems or perhaps targeting those radar sites.” Placing the radar in Southeast Asia would mean “the U.S. would actually have to step up patrols in the South China Sea and place these large destroyers in that region on basically regular patrols,” Bitzinger said. According to him, “That could be obviously taken by the Chinese as provocative.” U.S. officials have been on record that the Philippines and Vietnam are reluctant to host permanent U.S. military facilities for fear of provoking China.

It is not clear what radar type the U.S. would like to station in the Philippines, but from Mindanao, a version of the reported 6,000 km. range Sea Based X-Band (SBX) radar would allow for continuous missile and aircraft coverage all of Japan out to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, all of North Korea and China out to Southern Siberia, all of India into Western Pakistan and to all of continental Australia.[4] This radar alone, if networked and made available to U.S. allies, would provide overlapping coverage for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.[5] SBX, like all other radars, cannot see over the curvature of the earth, known as the “radar horizon.” SBX’s ability to detect incoming missiles (and discriminate between warheads and decoys) depends completely on where the radar is located in relation to the incoming missile. Thus, the closer that SBX is positioned to the targeted states, the better the odds that the missile defense system will be able to complete a successful interception.

The Bangsamoro[6] region in southern Philippines is a failed (or failing) region or an ungoverned space in the parlance of security experts. The Bangsamoro region is at the geographic center of the Tri-Border Sea Area in Southeast Asia, which comprises the territory of three maritime states, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. As described by RAND – "this zone constitutes a single geopolitical space that affects the political stability of the larger Southeast Asian maritime domain."[7] By default, it is the “ungoverned spaces" of the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch[8], especially the Bangsamoro areas in Mindanao including its maritime and air spaces, which have become the maneuver area of the submarines, warships, aircraft and Special Forces of the U.S. in the guise of counterterrorism and stability operations. The seascape and land base of the Bangsamoro region are possible suitable locations for the planned X-band radar of the U.S. Moreover, the Bangsamoro territorial space with the latent claim of the U.S. to it as its former colonial possession, which was given to the Philippines at the time of its independence in 1946 on the unstated condition that it will be able to govern the Moros, provides the U.S. plausible claims on the use of that territory for its containment strategies towards China, and in particular, its strategies towards the South China Sea.

The Bangsamoro Question, which is about the sovereignty-based movement of the Moros, has led to decades of instability and armed conflict in Mindanao, but is now on the path towards a peaceful resolution after the signing on October 15 of a “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro” in the peace talks facilitated by Malaysia for the past eleven years between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Moro secessionist group in Mindanao, and the Philippine government. The Framework Agreement seeks to establish by 2015 the “Bangsamoro” as a self-governing region and a new autonomous political entity to replace the limited form of autonomy granted by the Philippine government to the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The prominence of the Bangsamoro region in the minds of security planners is because China has become more aggressive in crowding out other military players in the South China Sea. China’s dominance of the South China Sea has recently been bolstered by an edict of its Hainan island provincial legislature, allowing Chinese police to board foreign ships in parts of the disputed South China Sea. The new regulations apply only to waters around islands for which China had announced "baselines," said Wu Shichun, the director of the foreign affairs office of the southern Chinese province of Hainan, who is also president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.[9]

The U.S. probably doesn’t want to unnecessarily provoke China by conducting regular patrols in the South China Sea. Given the delicate situation, the U.S. is not challenging China directly with its ships or airplanes but rather it seeks “the balance of power needed to credibly control — or at least defend — access to the sea lines of communication in and around the South China Sea, through which about half of all global maritime commerce passes.”[10] One of the most important interconnectors and "maritime rimlands" in relation to the South China Sea is the maritime crescent from the Sulu Sea, the Moro Gulf towards the Sulawesi (Celebes) Sea, which forms the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch, also known as the Tri-Border Sea Area bounded as it is by the three maritime states of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf are part of the geographic space of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao while the Sulawesi Sea is part of North Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Sulu Sea is named after the Sulu archipelago populated by various Muslim Moro tribes and the Moro Gulf is called as such because its surrounding coastal areas are predominantly Bangsamoro.

Hence, the establishment of a self-governing Bangsamoro region is timely and convenient for various parties interested in the South China Sea dispute. For the Philippines, it might allow or at least it will not object if the Bangsamoro were to lease the United States space or a site to put up its X-band radar in Bangsamoro territory. The Philippines can defend itself against any protest from China by saying that it is a commercial transaction between the Bangsamoro government and the U.S. and the radar is a defensive installation. On the other hand, if China chooses to target the radar site for attacks in case of confrontation with the U.S., it is probably more acceptable to the Philippine public if the attack will take place on Bangsamoro territory since the Bangsamoro is conceived as a self-governing region, which has a history of rebellions. The Bangsamoro will probably accept a U.S. commercial offer to lease land for the X-band radar (or any payment for the use of its territorial waters for the sea-based version) and it will only depend on how much the U.S. is willing to pay since the Bangsamoro will need all the funds it can get to support its self-governing region at the start.

The Bangsamoro territory is ideal for X-band radar site because it has the requisite mountains and seas. But in the end, there is no other alternative site in Bangsamoro territory for X-band radar that will not focus anti-American sentiments in the Philippines other than in the MILF-controlled areas of Central Mindanao since the Sulu archipelago is a hot-bed of the Al-Qaida linked Abu Sayyaf and any American installation there will only attract other anti-American militants to strengthen Abu Sayyaf. The rest of Mindanao is a stronghold of the other insurgency in the Philippines, the virulently anti-U.S. Maoist New People’s Army, which could conceivably be funded by China to disrupt American security plans including any radar installations. Besides, through the peace process with the MILF and eventual establishment of Bangsamoro, the MILF can be reconfigured and maintained like the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan to secure any future American X-band radar facilities on Bangsamoro territory.

Moreover, the peace process to establish the Bangsamoro serves as the glue for cooperation between Malaysia and the Philippines with regard to the South China Sea issue.[11] Malaysia, which has its own territorial claims in the South China Sea, is one of the stronger regional armed forces with submarines, modern fighter squadrons and gunboats armed with missiles. Malaysia is the third-party facilitator of the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF and the success of the talks and the peace process has bolstered Philippine confidence towards Malaysia as a security partner for the country muting its own dispute with Malaysia regarding the Philippine claim to Sabah, one of the states in Malaysia neighboring the Sulu archipelago. Malaysia would probably be uneasy if the X-band radar is placed in any other location in the Philippines other than Bangsamoro territory. However, with the Malaysian armed forces already deployed in Bangsamoro territory as ceasefire monitors between the Philippine armed forces and the MILF for a number of years now, it would not be a stretch for them to come to terms with the U.S. both diplomatically and on the ground regarding any of their concerns about the X-band radar.

Incidentally, Japan, which will also benefit from the installation of X-band radar in Bangsamoro, is heavily involved in the Mindanao peace process as it has sent a civilian monitor to the Malaysian-led International Monitoring Team safeguarding the ceasefire and is likewise part of the International Contact Group for the Mindanao peace process together with Britain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The other Southeast Asian maritime states of Indonesia and Brunei have boots on the ground since they have sent to the Bangsamoro their soldiers and officers as part of the International Monitoring Team and would be similarly situated as the Malaysians vis-à-vis the U.S. and any X-band radar facility it will put up in Bangsamoro. Singapore is left out as the only Southeast Asian maritime state that has yet to cultivate its ties with Bangsamoro in order to become a player in that part of the region.

U.S. allies like the E.U. and Australia will probably not view the setting-up of X-band radar facilities in Bangsamoro as unduly provocative or escalating the tensions with China on the South China Sea issue. The E.U. is in the midst of having its own missile defense systems set-up under NATO while Australia already hosts American signals intelligence and radar facilities at Pine Gap. On tensions in the South China Sea, a senior E.U. official closely following the developments said that “The E.U. is very concerned. It’s a question of freedom of navigation and trade flows. We do have a stake in that part of the world.”[12] In a show of solidarity with the U.S. on the issue, the official, who declined to be named, added that “We can be more effective in diplomatic channels. It’s not only the hard security that matters but also soft security, like through the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum). How can we help out? How can we boost or deliver the message (on maintaining stability)? We need to send a quiet robust signal.” Similarly, it is not surprising that Australia and the E.U. together with Britain are involved in Bangsamoro through the Mindanao peace process laying the ground work for the stability needed for the U.S. X-band radar, with Britain in the International Contact Group for the Mindanao peace process, the E.U. as part of the International Monitoring Team and Australia as funder for various local and international non-governmental organizations helping the peace process.

Ultimately for the U.S. pivot to Asia, or the rebalancing of U.S. forces towards Asia, the installation of X-band radar in Bangsamoro is more cost-effective than establishing a full blown military base or a “fleet in being” in the area of Southeast Asia, or even the touted beefing up of Guam as a fortress for America in Asia-Pacific. In an era of trillion-dollar deficits, few in Washington believe that American voters will support greater defense spending if it means cuts to entitlement spending programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.[13] (END)

[1] Lerman, D. and Ten Kate, D. "U.S. Said to Plan Added Radar to Bolster Asia Defenses", Bloomberg news, August 23, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Fisher, R., “Less Is Not Enough: Reflections on China’s Military Trajectory and the U.S. Pivot”, International Assessment and Strategy Center, November 25, 2012, last accessed on December 11, 2012 at…

[5] Ibid.

[6] The term Moro or Bangsamoro refers to indigenous peoples, who are natives of the Sulu archipelago, parts of Central and Southwestern Mindanao, and parts of Palawan in the Philippines, and parts of Sabah in neighboring Malaysia at the time of conquest or colonization. There are at least 13 ethno-linguistic groups or Muslim tribes who are referred to as Moros. Other non-Muslim tribes in Mindanao by self-ascription are part of Bangsamoro. The territory predominantly inhabited by Moros is also referred to as Bangsamoro, which literally means “Moro Nation”.

[7] Rabasa, A. and Chalk, P., “Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia, The Coast Watch System of the Philippines”, RAND, March 2012.

[8] See Rabasa, A., Et. Al., “Ungoverned Territories, Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks”, RAND, 2007 where the Mindanao-Sulawesi Arch is interchangeable with the Tri-Border Sea Area.

[9] Page, J., “China Sheds Light on New Sea Rules”, The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2012.

[10] Drefuss, R., "Fool's errand: America's pivot to Asia", The Diplomat, December 5, 2012.

[11] Sinapit, J., “PH, Malaysia armed forces boost cooperation amid China's bullying”,, December 9, 2012, last accessed on December 11, 2012 at…

[12] Romero, P., “EU helping defuse tension in disputed seas”, The Philippine Star, December 11, 2012.

[13] Supra 10.

It's interesting to see references to "competing blocks of Western powers" and "the Great Game of maritime Southeast Asia" raised in reference to the Bangsamoro issue, but the references would be more credible if the author had given some indication of what the purported blocks of western powers would be competing over, what the "great game of maritime SE Asia actually is, and what hypothetical influence engagement with the Bangsamoro is supposed to have on that great game. The invocation of the "Asian pivot" and the increased American Naval presence in Subic is also a bit disconnected, as the author makes no attempt to demonstrate how this presence relates to the situation in Mindanao.

There are often hints and suppositions, often deriving from that conspiratorially-minded Philippine press, that foreign interest in the peace process is designed to advance some overarching economic or strategic interest. What exactly those economic and strategic interests are is typically left up to various fertile imaginations: the resource endowments and strategic significance of the Bangsamoro area are consistently and wildly exaggerated. Once imagination is removed from the picture it's difficult to see how anyone stands to gain any significant advantage. The actual extent of foreign involvement has also been exaggerated: a significant number of foreign powers are indeed involved, but the actual commitment of resources has been fairly modest and far below any level that would indicate that a "great game" is being played.

The article's focus on foreign involvement tends, IMO, to overstate the impact of that involvement and distract from the overwhelmingly local nature of the process and the threat that local power dynamics pose to the success of the process.

The author mentions the tension between the MILF and MNLF, but fails to mention that this tension is essentially just a reflection of the deeper ethnic/tribal tension within the proposed Bangsamoro. The MILF and MNLF split less for ideological or religious reasons than because of rivalry between the mainland Mindanao Maguindanao/Maranao bloc that dominates the MILF and the predominantly Tausug/Sama/Yakan groups based on the islands west of Zamboanga. While the Bangsamoro negotiators may not all be integral MILF members, they are dominated by the Maguindanao/Maranao bloc and may not be accepted as representative by the groups in western islands, the area that produced the Abu Sayyaf and has dominated OEF/P operations. That raises significant doubts about the ability to integrate the two parts of the Bangsamoro and to control the regions not dominated by the MILF. If the Tausug, Yakan, and Sama feel like a second-class presence in the Bangsamoro government or in the peace process, prospects for peace will be somewhat diminished, to put it mildly.

It's also not clear how the competition for power within the Bangsamoro will pan out. Politics in the area have been dominated for several decades by powerful Muslim clans that have made alliances of convenience with the Manila government, enriching themselves through corruption, building support bases through government-funded patronage, and developing significant armed forces of their own. The downfall of the Ampatuans has somewhat reduced the potency of this bloc, but there are other political clans and they will not give up power easily, raising questions about the ability of the MILF to alter governance patterns even in the Maguindanao/Lanao heartland.

It also remains to be seen how a transition to civil power will affect the MILF leadership, assuming they can wrest power from the existing Muslim political elites. Past peace agreements have not failed because of the geographic scope or level of authority of the autonomous governments, they've failed because the rebel leaders who took on civil authority fell into the same pattern of corruption, patronage, impunity and "big man" politics that have plagued the area for decades.

There are also potential spoilers on the government side. The predominantly Visayan settler bloc that was deeply involved in the start of the conflict and which outnumbers the Muslims in much of Mindanao has its own quota of well-connected feudal bosses, and they are likely to try to derail the agreement or weaken its implementation. They will have considerable sympathy among the majority of the populace outside Mindanao, which retains a deep visceral prejudice against Muslims. Many north of Mindnanao have minimal sympathy with Muslim grievances and see the agreement as little more than an accommodation with terrorists.

This agreement will not in itself produce peace. It could be an important step toward peace, but it will not produce peace if it's treated as an end in itself. If the government, both in Manila and locally, can unite to deliver effective governance, bring the political elites within the rule of law, and break the cycle of feudalism and "big man" politics, there's real hope for progress. If the agreement is treated as an end in itself, we'll just have a new name for a backward, oppressed, impoverished region that suffers under feudal misrule and breeds a new generation of rebels, and likely terrorists as well.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 5:44am

In reply to by JasonT

My personal opinion is that the probability of a negotiated settlement between the Philippine Government and the NDF is close to nil. Talks have been going on sporadically for ages, but the NDF invariably stalls them by making demands that are impossible to meet. Continued military pressure on the NPA is important, but it has to be done carefully: the military approach has traditionally been pretty ham-handed, alienating a lot of people and ultimately doing the NPA more good than harm. Where I live NPA forces from Abra periodically come over the hills and stage an ambush or two, hoping to get the military to move into some villages and piss some people off, building their support base. The military is better than it was but there's a lot of room for improvement and a very ugly legacy that will take a long time to live down.

I think the solution to the NPA problem ultimately lies in gradually disaggregating the ideologically driven leadership from the primarily grievance-driven fighters. The average NPA soldier knows little and cares less for ideology, and likely wouldn't know Karl from Groucho. They are fighting because of specific and generally local grievances. Addressing and resolving those grievances can gradually erode the NPA's ability to attract and retain fighters. The leadership caste is composed of hard core ideologues who have little interest in negotiation or compromise. They are not going to stop fighting, but if their followers gradually drop away the leaders are left with little or no capacity.

Pursuing the negotiations helps, though it's not going to produce a settlement: it underscores the NDF's intransigence and lack of desire for peace. Military pressure can help or hurt the effort, depending on how it's done. Bringing genuine and inclusive justice, even more than development, is key: people can live with being poor, but being poor , threatened, and abused is enough to make them fight.

Re this:

<i>Perhaps what all regional partners want to see is for the Philippines as a whole to be on a stronger partner in its own right - an economy driven more by production than consumption and government spending, improving the rule of law, lowering its debt burdern (still 50% of GDP) and reducing poverty. This is on top of modernising its armed forces so they are in a better position to focus on external defence and security. The MILF-GOVT Agreement is more significant in this context for releaving a major millstone around the neck of the Philippines.</i>

I think that's pretty much it, but it's a hard sell in the market of ideas here. The assumption of hidden agendas and ulterior motives is very deeply entrenched.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 1:45am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan, eliminating the corruption, removing the cloak of invisibility for the elite and openinning the unhealthy dynastic political patronage that exists would make the NPA less relevant. There is no doubt about that. But action against the NPA should go hand-in-hand with a dedicated, open and long term plan to remove the underlying grievances. The negotiations with the CPP / NPA and the Philippine Government are said to be underway. It is hard to imagine what grounds would exist for a satisfactory agreement that could stick (Dayuhan you may know more about this).

Back to the article itself, it overstates the significance of the Bangsamoro area on a geopolitical scale. Its relevance to the dispute in the South China Sea is also questionable. If the agreement remains in place and is cemented by the plebicite then it will absolutely be significant to the Philippines and may reduce the space of outside terrorist organisations to operate. It could also provide another example of how internal conflicts can be resolved. But there is little sign from the US or China or other Western players entering into any type of 'Great Game' over Bangsamoro, as suggested by the author.

As I observed on the ground in South Sudan, even with an increased US observer presence, the North and South Sudan peace process was often threatened as much by stubborn SPLA leaders who lost local authority and rogue militia still armed to the teeth without a cause, as well as the North’s reluctance to let go.

Perhaps what all regional partners want to see is for the Philippines as a whole to be on a stronger partner in its own right - an economy driven more by production than consumption and government spending, improving the rule of law, lowering its debt burdern (still 50% of GDP) and reducing poverty. This is on top of modernising its armed forces so they are in a better position to focus on external defence and security. The MILF-GOVT Agreement is more significant in this context for releaving a major milestone around the neck of the Philippines.


Thu, 01/03/2013 - 8:18pm

In reply to by JasonT

I'd have to say that focusing effort on the NPA is less needed than focusing effort on bringing the government's own representatives within the rule of law. Elite impunity and the corruption and abuse it breeds keep the NPA relevant and undermine every effort toward peace and development. Bringing the leaders of Mindanao's political clans within the rule of law and successfully prosecuting those who break the law will do more for Mindanao than any amount of suppressive action aimed at the NPA.

Thanks for the solid outline.

For many people in this area combatants and non-combatants, where fighting has taken place over generations, peace and security is an unreal concept. Strangely enough, for both sides, conflict has a familiar pattern; it imposes order, stifles dissent, generates profits, and provides employment and a raison d’etre for misplaced, unemployed and disenfranchised members of the community. One of the challenges will also be to ensure the MNLF and the BIFF do not muddy the waters.

However, the agreement provides an example of how the right mix of multi-lateral intervention can positively influence a complex internal conflict.

The current ‘road-map’ may be paved on stronger foundations than previous attempts. The give-and-take between the Philippine Government and the MILF on issues like disarmament, systems of justice such as Sharia law only applying to Muslims, tax and revenue sharing, elective representation and governance are more accommodating than in the past. The Philippine Government also agreed to recognise the ‘Bangsamoro identity’, which is a shift from the past. The other key difference will be the intense oversight and monitoring of milestones that was missing following the 1996 peace deal.

The agreement should allow the AFP to focus its efforts on the NPA who continue to threaten and disrupt progress.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 6:57am

Ishak also provides a good summary of what other nations are doing in Mindanao including Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the EU among others.

Also note his comments about internal security operations winding down and focusing on external security concerns.

One theme he addresses in the introduction is how the Moro in history had played off the colonial powers to maintain independence. I think we should realize how other countries may also use a similar technique and play off the major regional and international powers. I am thinking specifically of Burma and north Korea. I sometimes wonder if we realize when we might be "played."