How fake media accounts in Afghanistan are used to push Taliban propaganda

Since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021, numerous accounts mimicking or trying to present themselves as media outlets have popped up online. These fake accounts share content that appears to be authentic, often using the same graphic signature and style as the real media outlet. But on closer inspection, researchers from the NGO Afghan Witness found that their posts have no basis in reality and serve to undermine opposition groups in Afghanistan and clamp down on independent media.

Since December 2022, researchers at Afghan Witness – a human rights project dedicated to documenting and verifying events in Afghanistan – have identified several of these fake accounts and the messages they are trying to share. Their analysis centred on one fake Twitter account, @AF_Inter5, which presents itself as the news media Afghanistan International.

‘It will erode trust in the opposition movement’

Tom Stubbs, Senior Analyst for Information Operations at Afghan Witness, told the FRANCE 24 Observers more. 

The content revolves around denigrating both Afghan International and opposition within Afghanistan. And a lot of the stories they were sharing weren’t backed up in any other media. Normally, when you have a news story from Afghanistan International or other news agencies, we can actually follow that up and we can understand the nature of what they’re saying is true. But what this fake account was doing was just made up. 

The @AF_Inter5 account’s posts often extol the Taliban’s impact on Afghanistan, after the group reclaimed control of the country in August 2021. 

One post, published on March 1 and viewed more than 57,000 times, claims that the former top-ranking army commander of the Republic of Afghanistan and former Deputy Interior Minister for Security, Khoshal Sadat, said that the arrival of the Taliban ended the Republic, as well as “espionage, nationalism and insurgency”. 

However, there is no other record of this statement in English, Persian or Pashto-language media. And the image shared in this post dates back to 2020, before the Taliban took control of the country. 

Posts also undermine the rival National Resistance Front (NRF), which constitutes the main organised resistance to Taliban control.

Another tweet, published on March 11 and viewed more than 20,000 times, claims that the leader of the NRF, Ahmad Massoud, told the New York Times that his organisation has close relations with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a part of the Islamic State organisation active in Afghanistan. 

A tweet published on March 11 claims that the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan said that his group had close relations with the Islamic State organisation in the country. © Observers

However, Massoud has never been interviewed by the New York Times nor said that the NRF has a good relationship with ISKP. This claim serves to link Afghanistan’s self-proclaimed only legitimate resistance movement fighting for democracy with ISKP, a UN-designated terrorist organisation.

Another tweet claimed that an NRF commander had visited Israel to discuss bilateral goals, despite no other evidence in the media that this visit occurred.

Stubbs explained how this content reflects common Taliban talking points.

It will erode trust in the opposition movement because if people are believing what this fake account is saying about the opposition movement, they’ll believe that [the NRF] is dealing with Afghanistan’s enemies and people who want to destroy Afghanistan, that they’re dealing with the Islamic State. It really degrades people’s opinion of the NRF. 

The narratives shared in this content also vary drastically from that which is shared by the real Afghanistan International, a media outlet which claims to “provide balanced, and impartial news, about all for all Afghans, including all voices from across the political, social and business sectors inside Afghanistan and around the world”, according to its website.

Afghanistan International is a UK-based broadcaster and media outlet that emerged from the parent company of Iran International when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Iran International has been criticised for alleged ties to the Saudi state through its parent company funding, though the media outlet denies this.

Although the fake account had only 6,500 followers at the time of writing, its posts sometimes receive over 50,000 views and numerous comments and shares. 

A poorly copied fake account

After noticing the traction that @AF_Inter5 had online, the Afghan Witness team began analysing its content and posting behaviours. It was immediately evident that the account was fake, thanks to several clear indicators on its page. 

First, the account is not verified on Twitter, unlike the official Afghan International account, which is verified through Twitter Blue. The fake account has a different bio and email address – notably a Gmail address, and not a “” address. And the account was created in November 2021, several months after the Taliban took over the country.

The fake account also has posted far fewer times than the real Afghanistan International account: 236 tweets versus 34,230 tweets on the real account.

Finally, the fake account’s cover photo shows a CNN newsroom, while the real account has an Afghanistan International graphic with text. 

A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness
A comparison of the fake Afghanistan International account (left) and the real one (right). Afghan Witness © Afghan Witness

That being said, the account’s tweets look very convincing. They follow the same graphic formatting as the legitimate Afghanistan International’s breaking news tweets, with a logo and edited text on a photo.

An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right).
An image posted by @AFIntlBrk, the real Afghanistan International Twitter account (on the left) and an image posted by @AF_Inter5 (on the right). © Afghan Witness

>> Read more on The Observers: How to investigate a Twitter account or suspicious tweets

According to the Account Analysis tool, which allows you to see statistics about a Twitter account’s posting patterns, @AF_Inter5 tends to post between 6:30am and 8:30pm Afghanistan time – certainly not a 24/7 outlet as it claims.

A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1.
A comparison of the posting behaviours for the fake Afghan International account (above) and the real account (below), which posts 24/7. All times indicated are in GMT+1. © Observers

All of @AF_Inter5’s posts were posted on Twitter for Android, which could point to it being run by an individual or group of individuals who are supportive of the Taliban. In contrast, the real Afghan International account posts from Twitter’s web client, Tweetdeck, and several social media clients – more typical of a newsroom social media outlet managed by several staff members. 

Contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the media outlet Afghanistan International confirmed that they are not at all affiliated with the @AF_Inter5 account and “have been trying to take it down for some time without much luck”.

‘The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine’

Stubbs says the Afghan Witness has no indication that those posting on @AF_Inter5 are part of the Taliban. Nonetheless, the account typifies several important aspects of the Taliban’s online propaganda campaign.

We’re seeing that the Taliban are labelling Afghanistan International as fake news when they publish stories that criticise the Taliban. And they are incredibly quick to jump on news stories that they feel are unfair. And so having these fake accounts really chimes into the wider information operation that the Taliban is trying to create – they’re trying to erode trust away from independent news sources.

The information environment within the country is being eroded at such a massive rate. The official news sources that people can trust are diminishing. So it just means that there’s going to be one less source that people can look for. The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine rather than a free and independent media, as was prior to August 2021. What we’re seeing is effectively a revolutionary movement trying to rapidly erode a free media environment in a way that’s never really done in the world before. Quite often restrictions on the press are gradual, but what the Taliban are doing is incredibly rapid.

Online propaganda operations are nothing new for the Taliban, and many believe they were key to helping the group regain control of the Afghan territory. 

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Are US military drills in Asia Pacific a veiled attempt to curb Chinese power?

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Recent US military activity in the Asia Pacific is on the rise, including drills in the Philippines and South Korea as well as a recent submarine deal struck between the US and Australia. China has meanwhile accused the US of encircling the country. FRANCE 24 speaks with an expert to shed light on the mounting tensions.

The US said Tuesday that it will hold the largest joint military exercises ever with the Philippines next month, which would include, for the first time, live-fire exercises in the disputed South China Sea and a simulated defence of a tiny Philippine island nearly 300 kilometres (190 miles) south of Taiwan. The announcement came on the heels of concerns voiced by China over similar military drills conducted by the US and South Korea on the Korean peninsula.  Washington and Seoul on Monday launched their largest joint military exercises in half a decade, provoking a harsh response from North Korea as it fired two missiles into waters off its east coast.

With tensions rising in the Asia Pacific, FRANCE 24 talked to Marc Julienne, head of China Research at the Centre for Asian Studies of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) to shed light on the current situation.

FRANCE 24: China has expressed concerns over US drilling in the Asia Pacific as well as the recent deal brokered by AUKUS, which would see the US supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday criticised the US for maintaining a Cold War mentality. Do you find the critique valid? Is the US looking to ‘contain’ China?

Marc Julienne: Chinese President Xi Jinping and his newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gangboth used severe language last week with regard to the US, condemning it for preserving a ‘cold war mentality’ and, for the first time, accusing it of deploying a ‘containment’ strategy vis-à-vis China. This is quite new in China’s political discourse, and while we can hear echoes of that in some American publications, the terminology is absent from US public discourse.

The term ‘containment’ is in itself quite controversial because it dates back to the Cold War era, the context of which completely differs from our current period. I can’t say whether the US is trying to ‘contain’ China or not, but we can nevertheless observe external factual changes: On the one hand, China is looking to break up the current world order and to conquer new territories as it gains more power. The country is aggressively expanding its military might, whether it is on the Himalayan border, in the South China Sea, East China Sea or regarding Taiwan. On the other hand, the US is seeking to maintain the current world order by reinforcing its security measures.

What we need to understand is that such actions are rarely one-sided and do not solely concern the US and China. Other countries in the Asia Pacific have also started to perceive China as a clear threat and have asked for the US to ramp up its forces in the region. Even the Philippines, which has since long maintained a rather ambivalent relationship with China and the US, has recently welcomed the addition of four US military bases.

To what extent do the US recent engagements in the Asia Pacific reflect a shift in focus from Europe despite the war in Ukraine? What is your take on the matter? Is the US leaving Europe to fend for itself in order to concentrate on China?

I don’t see that happening in the near future. The US has been the main arms supplier to Ukraine since the war broke out early last year and it has very recently pledged additional military aid to Ukraine. For now I don’t see the US disengaging from Europe. Nevertheless, worries over a potential US retreat from the region are quite legitimate. Countries in Europe, especially those in the centre and in the east with disputed territories, would not be able to fend for themselves in the case of an invasion. And such fears have been stoked high since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, we have to remember that when the Ukraine war broke out, many were worried about the opposite case — that the US would withdraw its military bases from the Indo-Pacific region to focus on Russia and Ukraine. But that has clearly not been the case.

But of course we can’t exclude a scenario where the US decides to concentrate all its forces in Asia to counterbalance China. We saw a similar scenario happening when the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan to redeploy them in the Indo-Pacific region.

China’s Xi Jinping has vowed to ‘advance the process of reunification’ with Taiwan and has not ruled out achieving his goal by force as he recently took up his third term in office. North Korea meanwhile has launched several ballistic missiles threatening its southern neighbour. What role will Europe play if ever a war breaks out in the region?

[Contrary to popular belief], Europe’s role may not be as clear-cut as it may first appear. Since war is impossible to predict we can only hypothesise. In the unfortunate event that China tries to take Taiwan by force, Europe would first look to the US for leadership, whose intervention is not guaranteed! The US has strategically maintained an ambiguous attitude over the past few decades on whether or not it would provide military support in case of a Chinese invasion of the island, and Europe’s stance largely depends on that.

If the US is to intervene and lead a coalition with Japanese and Korean forces, then Europe would presumably show support as it condemns all unilateral changes to the status quo, a position that the United Nations also shares. The EU is likely to apply sanctions on China, similar to that imposed on Russia over the Ukraine war. Whether or not Europe would send troops, however, is an entirely different question.

I think perhaps a more interesting question is what will happen in case of an invasion of South Korea by North Korea. The US would undoubtedly intervene, but would China intervene as well on North Korea’s behalf? The two countries’ alliance being much less sturdy, it’s possible that China would choose to play the role of mediator instead of engaging in direct intervention. And I think that just goes to show how much weight China has in the global order.

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Thai activists facing royal defamation charges end 50-day hunger strike

Two young Thai protesters facing royal defamation charges announced Saturday they were ending their marathon hunger strike following doctors’ fears they could suffer organ failure.

Tantawan “Tawan” Tuatulanon, 21, and Orawan “Bam” Phupong, 23, began their hunger strike on January 18 to urge political parties to support the abolition of the kingdom’s royal insult laws – among the harshest in the world.

Wednesday marked the 50th day of the young women’s protest. They were freed from custody last month as their health declined.

“Tawan and Bam would like to inform the public that we have stopped the hunger strike to save our lives to continue fighting,” Tawan said in a Facebook post on Saturday. “The medical staff are concerned our kidneys and other organs are affected by the long period without food and water.”

The pair were rushed to Thammasat Hospital near Bangkok on March 3 amid fears they would not survive the night.

Days later they were still alive and determined to continue their strike from hospital. “I talked to them: they are a little bit better. Still very tired,” said their lawyer, Kunthika Nutcharut, on Tuesday. 

Throughout the strike the activists reiterated three demands: justice system reform, the abolition of strict laws that make it illegal for people in Thailand to criticise the monarchy and government, and the release of three activists (who go by the names Kathatorn, Thiranai and Chaiporn) who were refused bail while awaiting trial for taking part in anti-government protests. 

They faced stiff opposition. Thailand has a recent history of pro-democracy protests that gain traction before being put down. Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has served in his role since seizing power in a military coup in 2014, after which he expanded the use of lèse majesté laws, and successfully thwarted anti-government protests in 2020. 

The ruling Pheu Thai party, together with its previous incarnations, has won every Thai election since 2001. 

“People have said the activists are doing this knowing that they might not even win, but it’s a way to show the public the ugliness of the courts, the monarchy and all the key institutions,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor of politics and international relations at Kyoto University and a political exile from Thailand. 

Hunger strikes 

Tawan and Bam currently face charges for conducting a poll at Siam Paragon shopping mall on February 8, 2022, that asked whether royal motorcades were an inconvenience to Bangkok residents.  

While awaiting trial, Tawan, a university student, and Bam, a supermarket worker, were released on bail in March 2022 on the condition that they ceased participation in protests and activities that insult the royal family.  

On January 16 their bail was revoked at their request, to call attention to the practice of pretrial detention for political activists in Thailand. On January 18, the pair began their hunger strike while housed in Bangkok’s Central Women’s Correctional Institution. 

Within days their condition had deteriorated. “They did dry fasting on the first three days,” Kunthika said, meaning the women refused food and water. “It was so extreme that their bodies became sick to the point that doctors are not usually faced with cases like theirs.”  

The pair were eventually transferred to Thammasat University Hospital near Bangkok, where they received small amounts of water and vitamins on doctors’ orders. On March 3, the 44th day of the strike, they discharged themselves to join dozens of protesters supporting their cause outside Thailand’s Supreme Court. 

A special tent had been set up outside the court to house the women, but by evening doctors feared they were at risk of kidney failure and may not survive the night without medical intervention. Tawan was so weak that she became unresponsive, Kunthika said. “She’s already doing her second hunger strike since last year, and her body has not fully recovered since then.”  

The lawyer says the pair agreed to return to hospital on the basis that while they remain alive, other activists may see charges against them dropped. 

Of the 16 people detained without bail pending trial since anti-government protests in 2020, only three now remain in jail. Many activists were granted bail in February, during the hunger strike. “And some people argue that [their protest] is why the court was willing to set free a number of people charged under these laws,” said Pavin. 

Kunthika said in the same period, dozens of political prisoners have had their obligation to wear electronic tagging devices removed. Some have also had restrictions lifted limiting the hours during which they can leave the house.  

Criticising the monarchy 

Breaking lèse majesté laws, which forbids defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about senior members of the royal family, comes with a penalty of a minimum of three and a maximum of 15 years in prison under article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code.  

Although the law officially forbids criticism of senior members of the royal family, activist groups say it is widely misinterpreted by authorities to cover negative comments on any aspect of the monarchy whatsoever. Sedition laws also prohibit criticism of the government. 

Since anti-government protests flared in Thailand in 2020, more than 200 people have been charged with lèse majesté crimes. The law has been used by all political factions to silence opposition, activist groups say. 

Lifting charges for Tawan and Bam’s fellow activists means the Thai court is at risk of undermining its own authority. On one hand, the number of lèse majesté cases in Thailand has “increased significantly” in the past year, Human Rights Watch reports. On the other, if activism can force through legal reversals it shows, “the king could also force the courts to do something. It raises very, very important questions about Thai jurisprudence”, Kunthika said. 

In parliament, two opposition parties, Pheu Thai and Move Forward, have called for two of Tawan and Bam’s three demands to be met – the release of political prisoners and judicial reform. Only Move Forward has broached the third demand, calling for reform – but not removal – of the lèse majesté law. 

As Tawan and Bam’s health has deteriorated, human rights groups have urgently called for the government to engage with the activists, to no avail. “To date, the Thai government has shown little political will to address the situation of the activists on hunger strike,” said Chanatip Tatiyakaroonwong, researcher for Amnesty International’s regional office in Thailand. “In general, they are not giving due weight to the voices of young people involved in protests.” 

Last month the prime minister, through his office’s spokesman, said he hopes the two activists are safe but urged parents to “monitor their children’s behavior and build the correct understandings to ensure that [the children] do not believe and fall victim to political manipulation”.  

‘Imploring and pleading’ 

Anti-government protesters in Thailand are typically young, often children, who rely heavily on social media to spread their message. Tawan and Bam’s case has received more mainstream media coverage within Thailand than expected, their lawyer says, with major newspapers and television channels all reporting on their hunger strike.  

Throughout the protests the pair have tried to strike a non-confrontational tone. Their legal team has said that rather than trying to “force and coerce” authorities the activists are “imploring and pleading … with their own suffering”. 

The sight of two young adults willing to edge so close to death for the release of their fellow activists and the integrity of their country’s institutions is rare. “This is the first time [in Thailand] that people are doing a hunger strike for other people,” Kunthika said. 

There is also international support. Thousands have signed an open letter from Amnesty International appealing to the prime minister to withdraw charges against activists like Tawan and Bam, and to release others. 

“It is still not enough to push the Thai government to take the appropriate actions,” said Chanatip. “It is clear that more support is needed both domestically and internationally to ensure that Thailand stops its crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which prompted the hunger strike.” 

The timing of their hunger strike brings also complexities on the ground. General elections are scheduled for May, bringing hope for some that opposition parties will succeed at the ballot box.  

Until then, there is low appetite for anti-government protest – which the hunger strike may have otherwise inspired. “Even among the pro-democracy groups it seems like election is something that they think will be the light at the end of the tunnel,” Pavin said. “[They think] maybe we can hold for the next few months because the election will come. Then if the result doesn’t fulfil us, we can think about protest.” 

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Japanese company puts whale meat on sale in vending machines

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Two vending machines selling whale meat were unveiled in Tokyo on January 24 as part of the whaling industry’s campaign to try and increase consumption, which is on the decline in Japan. However, animal rights defenders, including our Observers, are angry that whalers are back in Japanese waters after the government lifted a ban on whaling in 2019.

Vending machines in Japan’s capital of Tokyo are offering whale sashimi, whale steak and canned whale for sale. 

There are many different ways to eat whale meat on display in the new “Kujira Store” ((kujira means whale in Japanese) vending machines unveiled on January 24. Lots of people have been circulating images of the machines and the whale meat products inside on social media. 

These are cans of whale meat for sale in a vending machine unveiled in Yokohama. © @HuyunanoniSWDC / Twitter

These are cans of whale meat for sale in a vending machine unveiled in Yokohama.
These are cans of whale meat for sale in a vending machine unveiled in Yokohama. © HuyunanoniSWDC / Twitter

For the past few years, the sale of whale meat has been losing steam in Japan. Considered both cruel and a threat to the survival of several endangered species, whale hunting was banned internationally for more than 30 years after a historic campaign launched by the NGO Greenpeace back in 1986. However, in 2019, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and relaunched commercial whaling in its waters.

That said, the Japanese didn’t actually stop whaling during those thirty years. In 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Japan had massacred nearly 900 whales a year under the guise of “scientific missions” in Antarctica. When it left the IWC, Japan did agree to limit whaling to within about 200 marine miles (370 km) from its shores, an area that is part of its economic zone.

The Japanese company Kyodo Senpaku, the main actor in the sector, is behind these new vending machines. They are thrilled about their newest bid to increase consumption – in fact, their spokesperson said that sales had already “surpassed expectations.”

They say they are planning on opening a total of a hundred vending machines.

This shows a Kujira Store vending machine in Yokohama.

‘Younger generations rather prefer “live” whales over whale meat’

Nanami Kurasawa is part of the Iruka & Kujira Action Network, a Japanese group dedicated to defending whales. She is angry about the installation of these vending machines, even if she doesn’t think that they will turn the public into big fans of whale meat overnight.

It’s one of the efforts for the whaling company to continue their industry, but I think it will not increase whale meat demand. In Japan, the whaling issue isn’t a popular topic […] people have been less interested in the issue. But younger generations rather prefer ‘live’ whales over whale meat.

In 2021, Japanese people ate 1,000 tonnes of whale meat, compared to an estimated 233,000 tonnes a year back in 1962, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fishing. Back then, people in Japan ate more whale meat than beef or chicken. 

‘Desperate’ attempts by the whaling industry 

From whale stuffed animals to sashimi recipes, Japan’s whaling industry is pulling out all the stops to attract consumers. 

Our Observer says the main argument levied by people promoting the consumption of whale meat – that it is an important tradition in Japanese culture – is all wrong. 

The whaling discussion is mostly among those who are against the anti-whaling community, the people who believe that ‘foreign people are trying to stop our culture and it’s discrimination against Japanese people’. The government insists that whales are one of the fishery resources. They say it’s our tradition to use all marine life. Whales are under the management of the Fisheries Agency, not the ministry of the environment. Their main purpose is to promote the fishing industry, and it doesn’t care about the environment or biodiversity. So along with many environmental and nature protection groups, we have been pressuring the ministry of the environment to conserve and manage whales like other mammals. But it hasn’t been easy until now. 

This is a “vlog” promoting the new vending machines in Tokyo.

‘A whole generation of Japanese people grew up eating whale meat in their school lunches’

Mark J. Palmer is the associate director for the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), which works for the protection of marine mammals across the world. He has been keeping a close watch on the strategy employed by Japan’s whaling industry over the past decade:    

For years, they’ve been trying to institutionalise commercial whaling and get the Japanese people to eat more whale meat. Following World War Two, there was a period when when Japan was very dependent upon whales because they were starving. Basically after World War Two, their infrastructure had been destroyed and they needed to get protein and whaling was one of the ways they did that. A whole generation of Japanese people grew up eating whale meat in their school lunches in order to provide nutrition to the Japanese people. But that time is long gone. 

The Japanese have killed whales since probably medieval times. However, that was always very local in coastal areas where they’d go out and they’d pull in a whale and the local community and maybe communities around would eat it. But there was never a widespread whale eating culture within the country of Japan itself.

The government itself tries to push this myth that whale meat is necessary for Japan to survive, and it really hasn’t taken hold at all. So they they do things like set up restaurants, put out recipes, they sell whale jerky. The newest gimmick is these little stores that have these machines.

They have a very hard time getting rid of the existing whale meat supplies that they have, much less expanding it to get it more economically viable. The problem with whaling has always been that in order to make a profit, you have to kill as many whales as you possibly can. So they’re always pushing for higher quotas. They’re always pushing for more whales because that’s the only way they can make it profitable.

When it lifted the whaling ban, Japan did impose a quota on whalers. In 2023, the quota was fixed at 347 whales total. Japanese whalers are allowed to hunt three different species: minke whales, Bryde’s whales and sei whales. 

However, our Observer says that these three species are not the only types of whale meat sold in Japan. At least one other species is imported. 

Sei whales are endangered, while the other two species on the Japanese hunt list are less so.  However, a large part of the whale meat imported into Japan comes from fin whales, hunted in Iceland.

Kyodo Senpaku, the company behind the vending machines, is planning to import nearly 3,000 tons of fin whale meat starting in February 2023. However, Iceland announced in 2022 that it would stop whale hunting by 2024, as demand for whale meat dwindles. Our Observers hope that Japan will take the same route. 

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US secures key military deal with the Philippines to counter Beijing’s growing regional influence

The Philippines signed an agreement with the United States on Thursday that will allow American soldiers free access to four of its new military bases at a time of growing unease in the Indo-Pacific region over China’s burgeoning influence.

The deal, which was sealed during a February 1 visit to Manila by the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, means more US troops near China and would enable Washington to better monitor Chinese movements in the disputed South China Sea and around Taiwan.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr granted the US army access to four additional military bases, mainly in the north of the archipelago. American soldiers, who already have access to five Philippine military bases, would also use these bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies and building facilities, but not to establish a permanent presence.

Back to pro-Washington

The benefit of this military agreement for Washington may seem obvious: “It allows, first of all, to complete the military encirclement of China in the China Sea region. In the north, the United States can use the American base in Okinawa, Japan, and the bases in South Korea, while in the south, American power can now be asserted from the bases in the Philippines,” said Danilo delle Fave, a specialist in security issues in Asia and associate researcher at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, an international group of experts in international security issues.

More importantly, it signals a return to a pro-Washington stance for a country that occupies a key geostrategic position at a time when the US and China are waging a war of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US administration can “finally say again that it can count on the Philippines in the event of a conflict with Beijing”, said Tom Smith, an expert on the Philippines and security issues in Southeast Asia at Portsmouth University.

Historically, the archipelago has had a love-hate relationship with the US. On paper, Manila is Washington’s oldest regional ally by virtue of a military cooperation agreement dating back to 1951.

But the reality is far more complex. Firstly, because of serious issues linked to the huge US-owned military bases – handed over in the early 1990s – that damaged the reputation of the US military. “There were cases of sex trafficking and prostitution that have left their mark,” Smith said.

Nor was the Philippines of particular strategic importance to the US in the East-West confrontation that dominated the Cold War years.

But Washington again began to make diplomatic overtures towards Manila “after the September 11 attacks, because the Philippines was viewed as a potentially useful ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism”, Smith said. The US army started training Filipino soldiers to better fight the Abu Sayyaf terrorist movement, which has a strong presence in the southern Philippine islands.

A bridge between regions

Since then, the Philippines’ strategic value has only increased. The country has “regained the same importance as it had during the Second World War”, said delle Fave. At that time the Philippines was the main land barrier between Asia and the United States. During the Second World War it blocked the way to Japan, whereas today it limits the scope of China’s operations.

In the eyes of both Washington and Beijing, “the Philippines is a bridge between the two regions – America and Asia – and whoever is favoured by Manila can assert themselves more easily on one side of the Pacific or the other”, delle Fave explained.

Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte between 2016 and 2022, the US watched nervously as its oldest Asian “ally” edged closer to China. The controversial former Philippine leader openly courted Beijing, proclaiming his ideological allegiance to the Chinese regime, while repeatedly criticising former US president Barack Obama.

Duterte offered his allegiances to Beijing in exchange for some promises of investment in infrastructure and the abandonment of Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands, which have been at the heart of Sino-Philippine tensions since the 1990s.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has led the Philippines since June 2022, had pursued a similar foreign policy strategy and sought to “deepen collaboration with Beijing” when he visited there in early January.

Into the arms of the Americans

But just three weeks later, the Philippine government made an unexpected 180° turn by signing a new military agreement with the US. “The failure of Duterte’s diplomatic approach is essentially due to Chinese intransigence regarding Beijing’s territorial claims on the Spartleys,” delle Fave explained.

In the last six years, Beijing not only refused to compromise but failed to increase investments in the Philippines. The January trip was a way for Marcos Jr. to offer China one last chance before “recognising that the US offer is the most attractive to Manila”, said Smith. The US offer included a promise to defend the Philippine fleet if it is attacked by the Chinese in the disputed South China Sea, a potential key flashpoint.

China’s uncompromising stance appears to have driven the Philippines into the arms of the Americans, but it could come back to bite them. Not only will Beijing find it more difficult to play hardball in the South China Sea now that there are US troops stationed in the Philippines, but these new bases are just over 300 km from Taiwan, strengthening the US’s ability to intervene if a conflict erupts between China and Taiwan.

“China preferred the certainty of having a foothold on the islands it claims rather than a pledge of allegiance from a country that has already changed its mind several times,” said delle Fave.

The Chinese are far from having had their final say.

Beijing authorities on Thursday denounced the signing of the new military agreement, saying it would contribute to fuelling tensions in the region. But “raising the tone on the Chinese side is only the first step”, according to Smith. He believes that China will want to prove that it can continue to navigate safely in Philippine territorial waters. This will likely lead to more incidents involving Chinese and Filipino vessels. But for the time being, none of the countries involved – China, the Philippines and the United States – seem to have any interest in seeing such incidents escalate into a full-blown security crisis.   

This article is a translation of the original in French.


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