In 2012, the Philippines was accused by China of militarizing the territorial dispute over Scarborough Shoal when it deployed the Philippine Navy’s flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to apprehend a Chinese fishing vessel and arrest its fishermen. This military adventurism on the part of the Philippine Navy, by deploying the latest warship in its inventory at that time, cost the country the moral high ground in performing ordinary maritime law enforcement. This blunder under the Aquino administration marked the start of deteriorating Sino-Philippine relations due to tensions over the territorial conflict in South China Sea. That trend continued for the rest of Benigno Aquino’s term.
Although there is truly a need for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to effectively ensure the implementation of the AFP Modernization Act, to guarantee a minimum credible defense capability, that is not enough. It’s worth analyzing what else the Philippines needs in order to ensure its effective control of and presence in contested areas of the South China Sea. The fallout from the deployment of a gray hull in Scarborough Shoal is a clear indicator of the limitations of military assets in a territorial conflict. Using naval assets in these disputes will either project the Philippines as a warmongering nation or escalate tensions that can go beyond Manila’s control. The coast guard, on the other hand, is uniquely suited for handling delicate maritime tasks.
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In recent years, nations in East Asia have been developing their maritime law enforcement agencies or the coast guards. One of the prominent causes is the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), since it basically extended the maritime jurisdiction of every littoral state. These states recognized the need to create another maritime agency, separate from the navy, in order to enforce laws at sea, manage vast maritime resources, and safeguard national interests. Although the navy formerly and ably performed these functions, the coast guard legitimately and diplomatically has the upper hand in these kinds of jobs. Since UNCLOS redefined maritime boundaries, it also created overlapping territorial claims and in performing maritime law enforcement in these areas, the utilization of the navy may be viewed as a provocation and not as a mere policing operation.
The other reason for the growth of coast guards in East Asia is because its surface and air assets are relatively cheaper, compared to the navy. Coast guard armaments, vessels, and aircrafts are specially designed for maritime law enforcement and other maritime operations like search and rescue, oil spill response, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. Unlike gray hulls and navy aircraft, there are limitations on where and when these can be deployed; that reduced mission set, however, also translates to lower costs.
The last significant reason driving coast guard growth is that maritime cooperation among the coast guard organizations in the region is more effective and significantly stronger than naval cooperation. This may be best explained by the common interest of these organizations in enforcing maritime law, protecting the marine environment, and ensuring maritime safety. All countries in the region have their stakes in countering piracy, arresting illegal fishermen, preventing maritime pollution, eliminating substandard vessels, and ensuring the safety of life and property at sea. No hidden interests are suspected, since these coast guard agencies share common goals.
China’s Coast Guard
Though the China Coast Guard (CCG) was only established in 2013, it is overwhelmingly the biggest coast guard fleet in the region, with an estimated total tonnage of more than 500,000. Beijing’s creation of a white hull fleet is a Trojan horse strategy; these powerful CCG ships are strategically dispersed, pretending to be law enforcement agencies policing the seas, but actually ready and capable to carry out offensive attacks. There have been numerous cases where CCG ships were used to sway the fishermen of other countries while at the same time protecting China’s own fishermen — even within the exclusive economic zones of other countries. It is also believed that these CCG ships, although painted white, are technically constructed and equipped with naval armaments of the same level as their gray hull counterparts.
In establishing its coast guard, China learned from the Japan Coast Guard’s patrols of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. For Japan, the positioning of white hulls in disputed waters is not viewed as a hostile and provocative act, but rather a mere indication of effective control and territorial jurisdiction.
Second, as the China Coast Guard adopted such a strategy it learned that the real motives for deploying coast guard vessels can be hidden. A CCG ship may be modestly viewed as a harmless white hull, while equipped with the actual firepower like of its naval counterparts. The ongoing construction of numerous and ever larger and more powerful CCG ships suggests that the fleet will play a significant role in enforcing China’s territorial claims, including the nine-dash line in the South China Sea.
To respond to this challenge, the Philippines (and other claimants) must look to their own coast guards.
The Philippine Coast Guard
The Philippine Coast Guard has a rich history. In 1901, the Americans created the Bureau of Coast Guard and Transportation and placed it under the Department of Commerce and Police. Its primary objectives were to perform maritime law enforcement, support the customs tax collection, patrol against illegal immigrants, maintain lighthouses and provide vessels for the deployment of Philippine Constabulary personnel. However, this agency was short-lived; it was demolished five years later.
Soon after the Philippine independence, the Philippine Naval Patrol, which later became the Philippine Navy, was established and assumed all of the coast guard functions. In 1967, the Philippine Coast Guard Law was enacted by Congress, enabling the creation of the PCG as one of the major units of the navy. But its military character prevented to PCG from receiving capability upgrades from other foreign countries, especially Japan. In 1998, the PCG’s functions were recognized to be civilian in nature and the Philippine Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Transportation Communications (DOTC). That department became its permanent agency in 2009, after the new Coast Guard Law was passed.
Immediately after being categorized as a civilian, uniformed maritime service, the PCG received a 60-meter buoy tender from Japan to develop its capability for maritime safety and maritime pollution. Also in the PCG’s early days under the transportation ministry, DOTC successfully cut a deal with Tenix Defense in 2000 for the delivery of brand new eight Search and Rescue Vessels, four 35-meter vessels and four 56-meter vessels through a soft loan from Australia. This boosted the capability of the Philippine Coast Guard for search and rescue and maritime law enforcement.
In 2004, when the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) received a soft loan from Spain for the construction of ten 30-meter Monitoring, Controlling and Surveillance (MCS) boats and four 11-meter MCS boats, they chose the PCG to man these assets because of its character as a maritime law enforcer. While the BFAR has operational jurisdiction in utilizing these MCS vessels, they have significantly improved the maritime law enforcement capability of the Philippine Coast Guard.
A year after the Scarborough Shoal incident, the PCG once again had the limelight as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) approved a loan for the construction of ten 40-meter Multi Role Vessels. It is expected that by 2018 all of the ten vessels will be delivered. These multi-role vessels will once again boost the PCG’s capability, since the SARVs and MCS vessels’ reliability and operational capability have gradually deteriorated after more than ten years of use.
It is no secret that the Philippine Coast Guard’s operational readiness has depended largely on these newly acquired hulls, despite the old floating assets that were turned over to the PCG after its transition from the navy. Currently, the three buoy tender vessels (AE-79, AE-89, AE-46) and lone patrol gunboat (PG-64), which were once part of the navy’s vintage ships, are no longer operating and beyond repair. On the other hand, the 34 Coast Guard small crafts (40-60 footer cutters) have been parsimoniously maintained but it’s highly unlikely these cutters could be used beyond the territorial sea.
It is unfortunate that the Philippine government is using wooden motor banca to provide rations and supplies to the soldiers stationed on board the grounded navy vessel BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, while Chinese Coast Guard ships harass the operation. Although the Philippine Navy has the vessels to deliver these supplies in a much more dignified manner, the military’s hands are tied. They learned their lessons from the 2012 standoff: gray ships are not to be deployed in contested waters.
So why don’t Philippine white ships deliver the supplies? It is simply because the Philippine Coast Guard cannot. The PCG lacks offshore patrol vessels that have the capability to be deployed in the Spratly Islands. Perhaps this may also be a contributing reason why Beijing was able to reclaim the reefs that the Philippines once claimed. It also means that Filipino fishermen do not have a PCG vessel able to rescue them should they be rammed by the CCG in Scarborough Shoal.
Though it is truly a significant step for the Philippine government to modernize its military, nonetheless it is more rational to consider more broadly what the country needs. Taking into consideration the trend of using white hulls not just as a tool for maritime law enforcement but also for foreign policy as well, the Philippine government should appreciate the Philippine Coast Guard not just as a mere agency for policing the sea but as a diplomatic instrument. Furthermore, based on the PCG’s history, the modernization and capability upgrade of a coast guard is much easier to pitch to other countries when seeking soft loans — not to mention the fact that coast guard hardware is much cheaper to procure and to maintain than fancy naval ships. And most importantly, the white hulls can be deployed anywhere and anytime without compromising balance and order.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a Philippine Coast Guard Officer and a Ph.D. Candidate at the Global Governance Program of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, Japan.