The US’ extensive interests in Sulu and its seas
After the successive bombings inside and outside a Catholic church in Jolo, Sulu, Rodrigo Duterte was quick to declare that these were suicide bombings perpetrated by “foreign terrorists.”
Nevermind that his police has just started investigating and has yet to obtain any evidence. According to Duterte, the bombings proved that ISIS minions are flourishing in Sulu and are under the protection of the pro-ISIS Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Therefore, the AFP needs to intensify its operations in Jolo and the entire Sulu province (Jolo, Basilan and Tawi-tawi).
Duterte’s declaration and style regarding “foreign terrorists” in Sulu harks back to his declarations about foreign terrorists flourishing in Marawi to justify the imposition of martial rule and open US intervention in the country. Like in Marawi then, he legitimized AFP’s rampage and destruction of civilian communities resulting in the eviction of residents and the eventual awarding of their lands and resources to bourgeois compradors and their foreign counterparts.
On December 17, 2018, Duterte formally created the 11th ID, a new AFP division, which will focus mainly on Sulu. Department of National Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted that the US has long been involved in AFP operations in Sulu, particularly in operations against “foreign terrorists.” In fact, US personnel and equipment were the first to arrive at the scene of the Jolo bombings this January. Their activities in the country is under the Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, a “counterterror mission” which the US established under the pretext of the “war” in Marawi in 2016.
More intensive AFP and US military operations also follow the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a measure which the Sultanate of Sulu vehemently opposed. Sulu voted against the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which established the BARMM. In spite of this, the province will still be under BARMM as it is part of the old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which in turn voted in favor of BOL.
Sulu and the US’ “war on terror”
The US has long used Mindanao, and the Sulu archipelago in particular, as a playground for its troops. The US Indo-Pacific Command considers Sulu, and its immediate border the Sulawesi Sea (formerly known as Celebes Sea), as a “primary area of interest for counterterrorism in the Pacific” and “bilateral focus of relations with countries in Southeast Asia.” The Sulu-Sulawesi Seas measures a million square kilometer of waters and is bordered by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Like Marawi, Duterte’s drumbeating of ISIS and foreign terrorists in Sulu serve to justify US deep and extensive military intervention in the country. In 2001, the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) and created the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) to base its troops once more in the country. This was 10 years after the Philippine Senate terminated the Military Bases Agreement in 1991 which closed US military bases in the country. Under the OEF-P, the US directed AFP operations in Mindanao, particularly in Sulu, using pursuit of the ASG as cover, which it linked to Al Qaeda at that time. The Al Qaeda was responsible for the bombings in the US on September 11, 2001, the attacks which resulted into decades of US wars of aggression and occupation in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.
To hype its international significance, the US linked the ASG to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a pro-Al Qaeda group based in Indonesia and Malaysia, which it then called the “triangle of terror” in Southeast Asia. The ASG, ISIS and even Al Qaeda, are direct products of covert operations of the US Central Intelligence Agency in countries which it has intervened in the past decades. The US itself funded and expanded the ISIS from 2012 when it armed and used the group against Syria’s anti-US government. It is worth noting that in the Philippines, the ASG, a monster created by the US and the AFP, expands and becomes active every time the US military needs additional cover and justification for its interventions.
The US has long used the Sulu Sea as a transit and secret passage for its ships and submarines, with or without the knowledge of the sitting puppet regime. In the 2000s, it used the ASG and JI’s supposed use of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas as an excuse to hold large-scale military drills between the US and AFP in the guise of “maritime security.” But from 2009 up to 2016, the ASG was not active in what the US deems as “terroristic activities.” Instead, its criminal and bandit character became more pronounced as it conducted successive kidnappings of foreign tourists and ordinary civilians, as well as fisherfolk in the Sulu-Sulawesi area. Because of this, the US changed its excuse for being in the area from simple “terrorism” to countering piracy and other crimes which it then termed “maritime terrorism.”
Maritime security, a cover for power projection
The truth is, the US wants to position itself in the entire Sulu-Sulawesi Sea to control an important route for its military ships and troops, as well as commerce, in the Southeast Asian region.
The route is relevant for its deep passages which favor big warships and submarines going and leaving the South China Sea. It is also important because this is where the US can engage the Indonesia and Malaysia, countries resistant to US military basing and presence, in “maritime cooperation.”
In addition, millions of passengers and hundreds of commercial ships traverse the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas. Every year, around 18 million people and 100,000 ships carrying 55 million tons of cargo worth $40 billion pass through these seas. In particular, oil supertankers use this route as the waters in the Malacca Strait (situated between Malaysia and Indonesia) is not deep enough. The Sulawesi Sea also intersects the Makassar Strait, the second largest operational liquid natural gas field in the world.
From 2008 to 2011, the US built the Coastal Watch System (CWS), a network of radars used to spy on movements in the Philippine seas. Almost 10 of these radars are in the Sulu Sea, with one each near the islands of Palawan, Mindoro and Zambales (all facing the South China Sea); Samar and in the coasts of the Davao regions facing the Sulawesi Sea and Pacific Ocean. These radars were built by the US Department of Defense and Department of Energy through direct funding and military aid. In 2015, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the agency used to fund the project, turned over the administration of the radar network and its central command, the National Coast Watch Center, to the Aquino regime. Last year, another radar was added to the network when one was slyly built in Boracay when the island was shut down.
From 2016, the US once again revived the ASG to aggressively push for larger presence and permanent basing of its troops, ships and vehicles, and other military materiel in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea. Its ships almost never leave the area in the guise of “joint patrols” with the Philippine Coast Guard. This is in tandem with the never-ending drumbeating of the US, with Duterte and the AFP parroting its stance on the presence of “foreign terrorists,” to force Indonesia and Malaysia to open Sulawesi Sea to longer basing of US ships.
All of this is part of the US’ aim of projecting power against China in Southeast Asia in the guise of “countering terrorism.” This is part of the US’ Southeast Asia Maritime Security (MSI) which was first pushed forward by the then Obama regime. Under the MSI, the US constructs military structures in the Southeast Asia seas for unimpeded identification, surveillance, and if necessary, obstruction of Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Like the CWS in the Philippines, these facilities are seemingly owned by the sovereign country, but are in fact mostly ran and used by the US. Accordingly, the US is set to construct a similar radar system in Vietnam, and station even more advanced systems in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In exchange, the US will dump obsolete war materiél, warships and aircraft.
Still, not all regimes in Southeast Asia are as obsequious as Duterte. Up to the present, Indonesia and Malaysia resist US pressure to open up their seas to prolonged US presence. Instead, Indonesia conducted trilateral patrols with the Philippines and Malaysia in 2017, without direct US participation.