Philippine Coast Guard getting muscular with China

By Richard Javad Heydarian

“They are not only there for navigational safety for ships, but they also serve as a sovereign marker. As you can see, we have the Philippine flag placed there and we are strengthening our presence,” declared Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Vice Admiral Joseph Coyme, referring to five buoys his forces recently placed across the hotly-contested Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea.

“Definitely, [we are sure about that] because the buoy that we have laid down bears the flag of the Philippines,” the Philippine maritime official added when asked about whether rivals such as China would appreciate the significance of Manila’s latest act of maritime assertiveness amid strengthening ties with its traditional United States ally.

The PCG also announced plans to place six more buoys in the sea by year’s end. Simultaneously, the PCG recently delivered basic supplies, including food and books, to Filipino residents permanently stationed on the Thitu Island, the largest naturally-formed land feature in the area that China has blocked in the past.

The move by Philippine authorities came just weeks after several PCG cutters almost collided with a Chinese warship in the South China Sea amid rising bilateral tensions in recent months.

It also came not long after the Philippines signed new defense guidelines with the US Pentagon, which has promised to help its treaty ally to more effectively deal with threats in the area, including “gray zone” operations by China.

Buoyed by growing defense cooperation with its superpower ally, Manila is taking on China with growing confidence and determination, effectively marking the end of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s fruitless strategic flirtation with Beijing during his six-year term.

Over the past year, the PCG has transformed into a primary instrument for the assertion of Philippine sovereign claims in the area against China. This marks a dramatic transformation for the maritime agency, which, only a few years earlier was a linchpin of friendly ties with Beijing under a Duterte-appointee.

Back in 2019, the Beijing-friendly Filipino president appointed a new commandant of the PCG, Vice Admiral Joel Garcia, a self-assured and outspoken official who had openly advocated for warmer ties with the Asian superpower.

Before his appointment as PCG chief, Garcia had endorsed joint exploration deals with China in energy-rich areas claimed by the Philippines as “within the bounds of our Constitution. And I would say that the Philippines would be better off to have that cooperation.”

Moreover, he downplayed the threat posed by the growing number of Chinese vessels surrounding Philippine-occupied islands in the South China Sea. He constantly pushed back against critics of Duterte’s Beijing-friendly policies, describing China as a “key partner”, including in interdicting maritime drug trade, rather than a threat to Philippine sovereign claims and interests.

At one point, Garcia even publicly cautioned Philippine seamen from defying China’s de facto control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal. Ironically, it was precisely a crisis over the same shoal that helped transform PCG’s role and kick off the maritime agency’s modernization for the  21st century.

For decades, the PCG was a largely underappreciated and underequipped agency that mainly played second fiddle to the Philippine Navy in safeguarding the Southeast Asian nation’s maritime interests.

But the months-long naval standoff between Manila and Beijing during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, when a Philippine naval vessel was challenged by multiple Chinese coast guard vessels shortly after apprehending a Chinese fisherman, marked a turning point for the PCG.

Intent on avoiding a similar crisis, the Benigno Aquino III administration along with key allies, especially the United States and Japan, began investing in the PCG. Not long after the Scarborough Shoal showdown, Japan donated multi-role patrol vessels and the US assisted in the establishment of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC).

Over the succeeding years, the US Coast Guard also expanded its joint exercises with the PCG, which began to benefit from growing government investment. In 2019, the PCG announced plans to recruit up to 4,000 officers to bolster its 36,000-strong workforce.

Then-transportation secretary Arthur Tugade, who oversaw the PCG, emphasized the role of the maritime agency as the primary state institution “in charge of the maritime activities related to UNCLOS and on the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea].”

The departure of Duterte and his appointees, however, is reenergizing the PCG’s mission to resist China’s assertiveness in Philippine waters. Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the Philippines has doubled down on traditional alliances and adopted an increasingly tough stance vis-a-vis Beijing in the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, Marcos Jr visited the Pentagon, where he oversaw the signing of a six-page “bilateral defense guidelines” document, which aims to facilitate closer security cooperation. Under the new guidelines, the Pentagon has vowed to assist Manila to jointly combat so-called “gray zone” threats, including by Chinese maritime militia forces.

“Recognizing that threats may arise in several domains – including land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace – and take the form of asymmetric, hybrid, and irregular warfare and grey-zone tactics, the guidelines chart a way forward to build interoperability in both conventional and non-conventional domains,” the Pentagon recognized in the new defense guideline with Manila.

Accordingly, the two allies are set, inter alia, to enhance “combined deterrence and capacity to resist coercion” and “coordinate closely on the Philippines’ defense modernization,” a US Defense Department announcement on the new guideline said.

Backed by its superpower ally, the Philippine Navy is also pitching in. Philippine National Security Adviser and former military chief Eduardo Ano signaled an even more assertive stance by PCG and Philippine maritime forces in the coming months.

“I earnestly hope that the PCG continues to deploy buoys in other maritime features in the [South China Sea] throughout the remainder of your term,” Ano said during a recent exchange with Philippine Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Artemio Abu.

The Philippine Navy has expressed growing support for its PCG counterparts as it seeks to redouble its commitment to resisting China’s creeping presence in the contested areas.

“Nowadays, the maritime environment has become complex. Nations have resorted to the use of white ships, I’m referring [to] coast guard ships, to prosecute their territorial claims. That blurs the distinction between the navy and the coast guard,” Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr recently said.

“We should give focus on external defense operation because… the challenge is really on our territorial waters,” he added, signaling growing cooperation with the PCG to face shared concerns in the area.

Meanwhile, Filipino lawmakers are also doubling down on their support for the PCG amid tightening security cooperation with the US and festering disputes with China.

Representative Leody Tarriela (Oriental Mindoro) filed on May 10 a new bill, known as the “PCG Modernization Act”, that aims to boost the PCG with new “state-of-the-art air and floating assets” and communication systems. The bill notes the maritime agency’s capabilities are still “insufficient to execute its mandates” given Beijing’s rapid naval expansion in recent years.

“[The current maritime] challenges require the PCG to operate with the highest level of efficiency and effectiveness to safeguard the country’s maritime interests and territorial integrity,” Tarriela said in a joint press release with the Coast Guard.

Meanwhile, in a telltale of shifting political sands, Senator Christopher Go, a key aide of former president Duterte, filed a separate PCG modernization proposal at the upper house to bolster his congressional counterparts’ proposal.

Should the new bill become law, the PCG will undergo a four-part development program over 12 years. Basking in the growing support from all quarters, Philippine maritime authorities have warned China of “serious repercussions” if it seeks to remove recently-installed buoys across the South China Sea.

“If we have evidence that they deliberately take out our installed buoys, which we believe are legitimate, there will be serious repercussions,” warned Vice Admiral Coyme, the coast guard’s Maritime Safety Services Command chief, without elaborating.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian