The Philippines’ communist guerillas target Chinese firms: a threat to Beijing’s Belt and Road?

The Chico river irrigation dam, a Chinese-backed project in the Philippines. Photo: Rodel Bontes shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

The banned Filipino communist party has ordered its armed wing to attack Chinese firms in the country, saying Beijing’s infrastructure projects are displacing thousands and harming natural resources. The party’s actions could complicate Manila’s relationships with Beijing.


In mid-October, the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) directed its armed wing to target Chinese-owned companies operating in the country, saying the companies’ projects are displacing thousands of people and destroying natural resources.

The CPP issued a statement on October 15 alleging that Chinese firms are involved “in some big-ticket infrastructure projects for the construction of mining roads and dams that are encroaching deeper and deeper into the ancestral lands of the national minorities and forests in various parts of the country.”

Chinese-backed projects in the country include the Kaliwa dam, the Subic-Clark cargo train, the Trans-Mindanao Railway and the Chico river irrigation plan. According to many analysts, Manila has seen few benefits from projects under China’s international Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though the plan does have much in common with the Philippines’ own infrastructure program, known as “Build, Build, Build.”

“These infrastructure projects not only displace thousands of peasants and minorities from their lands, they also wreak havoc [on] the natural ecosystem of the country’s remaining forests,” the CPP said of the Chinese operations.

While most of the statement calls for guerilla attacks on the Filipino military, it points to how the communist insurgency could complicate the country’s relationships with Chinese developers. According to a party spokesperson, the guerillas will target Chinese firms and any armed security forces employed by the companies.

The CPP’s targeting of Chinese firms represents a new tactic

The Philippines’ communist rebellion, founded in 1968, is one of the oldest armed resistance groups in Southeast Asia. Though the group initially received support from China, it cut ties with Beijing when the Chinese government adopted market-based reforms and its guerilla forces peaked in the 1970s-80s.

The CPP’s armed wing, known as the New People’s Army (NPA), may no longer pose a significant threat to the central government—the party itself admits that the guerilla group “does not yet have the strength to overthrow the ruling system.” In the words of a spokesperson for the Philippine Army, “the NPA is less than 4,000 and it is on a continuous decline.”

But as Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s government works to walk a fine line with China, the communist guerillas could represent a major threat to China’s interests in the country. As Duterte himself put it in mid-2019, the country’s relationship with Beijing requires “a delicate balancing act.”

The NPA’s threats to Chinese firms come amid an increase in the guerilla group’s activities. According to the CPP, its armed wing has launched 36 campaigns since August, in areas of Mindanao, Negros, Bicol, Panay, Eastern Visayas, Southern Tagalog and the Cagayan Valley.

As part of its expansive claims in the South China Sea, Beijing seeks control over a portion of the Philippines’ maritime territory. 

In 2016, the Philippines won an international arbitration case against China over the dispute, but the Duterte government has now largely chosen a path of appeasement. When a Chinese vessel recently rammed a Filipino boat in mid-2019, the president called the encounter “a maritime incident.” “There was no confrontation,” he said. “There was no bloody violence.”

According to the CPP, Chinese firms are committing “the plunder and destruction of Philippine marine resources in the West Philippine Sea, in violation of Philippine sovereignty.” Much of the country may agree with the party’s opposition to Beijing’s maritime claims and the government in Manila has signaled that it won’t allow incursions on its sovereignty to go unopposed—Duterte’s accommodating stance towards China is mostly a product of geopolitical maneuvering.

According to Joan Carling, an indigenous leader from Baguio City in the Cordillera region, Chinese-backed development represents a major threat to the country’s natural resources and the territories of indigenous peoples.

“China wants the resources, agribusiness, and big infrastructure projects,” she told Vice recently. “Ports, tourism, all of that. Of course the president is aware that we have a law on Indigenous peoples’ rights—we have land recognition, but he said, ‘OK, you Indigenous peoples, you just lease the land to the Chinese companies, just wait and relax, and you will become millionaires.’”

But like most of the Philippines’ activists, Carling is committed to push for progressive reforms—for human and environmental rights—through nonviolent means.

President Rodrigo Duterte walks past the honor guards
President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: PCOO EDP

Threats to civil rights, freedoms continue under Duterte

The Philippines has seen ongoing nonviolent resistance to Duterte’s government, now infamous for its violent war on drugs.

In May, the government’s move to push news broadcaster ABS-CBN off the air prompted widespread public outcry. Duterte had accused the outlet of biased coverage of the drug war. The government’s actions against the network were the latest in a series of attacks on the press, including court cases against Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa.

An anti-terror bill passed in June sparked protests across the country as it outlined a broad, vague definition of terrorism that critics say will be used to target activists and anyone speaking out against the government and the military.

While the country was in lockdown from March 17 to May 15, government security forces arrested approximately 120,000 people for breaking COVID-19 regulations, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. In April, Duterte told police, military and local officials to “shoot dead” anyone threatening them during the lockdown. A couple weeks later, police in Quezon City shot and killed former soldier Winston Ragos for violating quarantine. 

Despite the lockdown, the president’s state of the nation address in July drew protests across the country. Activists have also been arrested for opposing coal-fired power projects and development land grabs, according to Mongabay.

As for the CPP, the party said that its armed wing will aim to draw the resources of the country’s military and police “away from the suppression of the democratic movement.” While the Filipino government has shied away from pushing China out of its territory or checking Chinese aggression, the communist party’s actions will threaten to tip the country’s “delicate balance” with Beijing.

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