Philippine Coast Guard Activities and Transparency in the South China Sea
The recalibrated approach in the South China Sea through increased transparency was a key topic at a US-Philippines Society-hosted July 20 roundtable discussion with visiting CG Commodore Jay Tarriela and Pacific Forum Director for Maritime Security Dr. Jeffrey Ordaniel. In a separate program on the same topic, Society Executive Director Hank Hendrickson moderated a public forum at the East-West Center in Washington DC.
Deputy Chief of Coast Guard and Adviser to the Commandant on Maritime Security Affairs, Commo Tarriela described how the Philippine Coast Guard conducts non-military activities including maritime law enforcement, fishing patrols, and marine environmental protection within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under the Department of Transportation, the PCG is separate from the Philippine Navy which is tasked with national defense. By conducting patrol activities, the PGC is asserting the country’s sovereign rights and protecting Philippine Maritime interests in the South China Sea.
Recently, the Philippine Coast Guard has taken on an important role by calling attention the illegal fishing activities, swarming of maritime features by Chinese vessels, and unlawful conduct by the Chinese militia vessels within the Philippine EEZ. According to Commo Tarriela, the new transparency initiative is designed to raise public awareness of China’s aggressive tactics and has spurred support for the PGC and AFP patrol efforts in the West Philippines Sea. Citing the July 2016 Arbitral Award, the international community and countries including the United States, Japan, Australia, and India issued statements reaffirming rules-based order and offered assistance to the Philippines in capacity-building and maritime domain capability.
The transparency policy shed light to false narratives that portray the South China Sea issue as a great power competition urging the Philippines not to take sides. A powerful tool in shaping public opinion, the initiative may have induced a change in China’s vessel actions in some instances from shouldering Philippine ships to tailing behind.
Increasing presence of Chinese fishing vessels in Iroquois Reef located at the southern end of resource-rich Reed Bank and within the PH EEZ alarmed the PGC and the AFP. These developments highlight the need for capacity building focusing on discussions internally and with like-minded allies, a range of strategic responses to counter China’s operations to change the status quo by means of gray zone tactics. In the example of Mischief Reef beginning in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China has occupied and militarized islands, blocked and denied access to Philippine maritime features. China has shown its willingness to sacrifice reputational costs in the short-term, to support maritime claims that have longer lasting implications.
Chinese tactics in the South China Sea have stopped short of triggering a response under the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty. In the East China Sea, China continues to avoid serious escalation with Japan, which possesses more capability and capacity than other littoral states in the region.
Building on the momentum of support for its transparency initiative and coast guard modernization, the challenge for the new Marcos administration is to craft a forward looking South China Sea strategy that goes beyond symbolic gestures of deterrence and expressions of commitment, and toward more concrete steps to stop further reclamation and occupation of Philippine-claimed features.