No mention of West Philippine Sea in new military chief’s speech

JC Gotinga

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Lieutenant General Felimon Santos Jr praises President Duterte’s ‘localized peace talks’ with communist guerrilla fronts, and vows to focus military efforts on stamping out the rebellion

NEW AFP CHIEF. Lieutenant General Felimon Santos Jr was installed as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on January 4, 2020. Screengrab from RTVM

MANILA, Philippines – The new military chief, Lieutenant General Felimon Santos Jr, vowed to defend the government against communist rebels, in his assumption speech that covered the range of the Philippines’ security concerns except China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

Besides saying that defense cooperation with international allies and a modernization program would enable the military “to protect the integrity and sovereignty of our national territory,” Santos did not mention the West Philippine Sea during the change-of-command ceremony on Saturday afternoon, January 4, during which he officially took over as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) from General Noel Clement, who was retiring from the service.

China’s occupation and militarization of islets in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea – what’s called the West Philippine Sea – is one of the Philippines’ biggest security challenges, and is usually among the subjects of military chiefs’ public addresses.

Santos otherwise showed himself well-versed in the country’s security issues, especially the communist insurgency. He began by highlighting the achievements of Executive Order No. 70 (EO 70), President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of “localized peace talks” with individual fronts of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and affiliated militias.

Having been the commander of the AFP Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom) since January 2019, Santos said he “witnessed” how “good governance practices and the efficient delivery of basic services” in the Davao region as part of efforts to “end local communist armed conflict” made for “resilient communities that thwart the return of the communist terrorist groups.”

Santos mentioned the governors of Davao Oriental, Davao de Oro, and Davao del Norte, as well as Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the President’s daughter, as local executives who have successfully implemented EO 70.

“Thus, the Armed Forces can now focus its resources, manpower, and firepower on the remaining communist-terrorist armed groups who insist on not giving up the armed struggle in spite of the good will shown to them by the administration…. We will immediately neutralize those who insist on seizing political power through armed struggle,” Santos said.

President Duterte led the ceremony on Saturday – his first public appearance since missing two scheduled events on Friday, January 3, because he was “not feeling well.”

China in the room

Among the dignitaries who attended the change-of-command ceremony was Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian.

Duterte has broadened the Philippines’ relations with China by taking a decidedly non-aggressive approach to the West Philippine Sea dispute. China insists on owning about 80% of the strategic and resource-rich waters despite a 2016 international arbitral award that affirmed the Philippines’ sovereign rights. Duterte has refrained from demanding China’s compliance.

“Warmer” bilateral ties have led to financial and economic agreements worth billions of pesos in loans and loan pledges from China. Some critics have described the agreements as “debt traps.”

Out in the West Philippine Sea, Filipino fishermen and seafarers have faced harassment from Chinese vessels in areas like Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank. China Coast Guard ships maintain a constant presence in these places, while Chinese warships have occasionally been spotted traversing Philippine seas. Chinese fishing boats act as militias exercising de facto control of the waters.

To fight the communists

But to the Duterte administration, the communist rebels from the NPA and its affiliate groups are the more imminent enemy, and the military is under pressure to end the decades-old insurgency.

“We are confident that we will end that before the end of the President’s term [in 2022],” Santos told reporters after Saturday’s ceremony.

As the government plans to revive wholesale peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, the NPA’s parent organization, the military earlier said it would continue operating under EO 70 until otherwise ordered by the President, the military’s commander-in-chief.

Security officials like Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who supervises the military, have expressed doubts about negotiating with the communists, saying it could buy them time to regroup and relaunch offensives against the government.

Instead, the security establishment prefers the “localized” approach of EO 70.

Santos said nearly 1,200 communist guerrillas have surrendered and availed of the government’s “reintegration” incentives in the Eastmincom area in 2019 – a sign that the strategy was working.

Peace in Mindanao

Now at the helm of the entire military, Santos has 7 months to steer efforts against communists and jihadists – yet another major security challenge.

He said the military would “counter the narratives” of extremists through good governance and “earning the people’s respect.”

Under his watch, the military would see to the implementation of the Bangsamoro peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, seen as the key to ending violence in Muslim Mindanao.

International cooperation and the military’s modernization are also crucial to securing the country’s southern borders, where terrorists from other countries enter undetected by authorities.

As Eastmincom chief, and during earlier assignments in Mindanao, Santos became quite familiar with the conditions that breed violence. In Eastern Mindanao, which includes the President’s hometown Davao City, the threats have mostly been from communist rebels.

Santos will be military chief until August 3 when he turns 56, the mandatory age of retirement for members of the military. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.