During one of the presidential debates in 2016 election, then-Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte claimed that if he were elected, he would ask the Philippine Navy to bring him to the South China Sea, then ride a jet ski, and plant the Philippine flag on one of China’s reclaimed islands. Yet after his inauguration, he sought closer economic ties with China, leaving many diplomats confused about his maritime strategy toward the South China Sea row.
But one thing had been clear in the past months: Duterte is building up the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and using it as a primary force in the maritime industry, as well as a tool for maritime diplomacy.
The major development break for the PCG in 2017 was jump-started by the approved increase of its 4,000 troop ceiling limit, with an additional 5,000 to be added every year until 2022 to attain a total target number of 38,000 PCG members. Due to this personnel increase, Duterte’s allies in the Congress supported the enormous surge of the Coast Guard’s 2018 budget, raising it from the usual average of 7 billion pesos to 13 billion ($260 million). Relatedly, the 2018 national budget specified the PCG’s entitlement to receive a massive increase in its procurement budget from 150 million to 6.7 billion pesos ($134 million) to upgrade its capability.
However, it is worth noting that the development of PCG is not primarily driven by its maritime security role, or specifically its lead role in patrolling the South China Sea. The Duterte administration recognizes the importance of the PCG not just in this particular issue but also in addressing multifarious issues in the maritime sector. As an archipelagic nation, it is essential for the Philippines to have a uniformed maritime force in a constabulary — not military –role that can ensure a safe, clean, and secure maritime environment.
With tourism sector is currently regarded as a promising contributor to the Philippines’ national economy, lawmakers, led by the House speaker, recognized the PCG’s crucial role in maritime safety to enforce regulations related to vessel safety and boarding formalities of visiting foreign pleasure yachts. Such efforts ensure the safety of international tourists. Plus, since the PCG’s satellite offices are usually adjacent to coastal areas, they could be developed as a quick reaction force to prevent the kidnapping of foreigners, as has happened in Palawan and Samal Island. This possibility catalyzed the legislature’s commitment to increase PCG personnel and procurement.
Foreign grants through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) also support navigational safety through aids to navigation (ATON) and vessel traffic management systems. The safety of the archipelagic sea-lanes of the Philippines is not just a domestic concern but an international one as well, since foreign vessels traverse these maritime corridors.
In 2016, there was a spike in incidences of piracy and kidnapping of seafarers in the southern Philippines. The PCG, as the Philippine representative at the Regional Cooperation Against Armed Robbery and Piracy at Sea (RECAAP), was able to convince the member states not to declare Sibutu passage as comparable to the waters off Somalia, which would have increased the marine insurance and freight costs of the roughly 20,000 ships traversing that area each year. Instead, this international issue was addressed by the PCG in setting up maritime transit corridors to ensure the safe passage of foreign ships.
Most importantly, the newly promulgated Department of Transportation “Security, Safety and Environment Numbering (SSEN)” circular requires that all boats should have the SSEN painted on their side for record purposes. This will ensure that the boats will not be used for illegal activities. It is worth emphasizing that these small watercraft often serve as a getaway ride for kidnapping seafarers. Currently, the whole of Mindanao has 99 percent compliance with SSEN requirement, and the rest of the provinces in Visayas and Luzon are fast catching up.
The significance of the PCG was once again brought into the limelight during the battle in Marawi City, where PCG personnel significantly contributed to quelling the flow of illegal firearms and ammunition for the terrorists crossing Lake Lanao. They fought hand-in-hand with the Navy in the waters of the lake against the Islamic State-inspired Maute group. As the designated captain of the ports, the PCG secured all the ports in northern Mindanao to prevent the terrorists from fleeing the area using commercial ships. As a result, numerous apprehensions were made by the PCG in various ports against suspected terrorists.
With such unequivocal participation in fighting the terrorists in Mindanao, Duterte has approved the construction of 31 coast guard radar infrastructures in Mindanao and some areas in Visayas and Palawan. This will give an advantage to the PCG in monitoring all suspicious watercraft that traverse the maritime regions of Mindanao and southern Palawan.
For the first time in almost two decades of its existence under the supervision of the Department of Transportation, the PCG will add three coast guard bases in addition to the inherited structures from the Philippine Navy unit. These additional coast guard bases are located in Catanduanes, Sibutu, and Zamboanga.
The creation of Coast Guard Base Catanduanes will serve as a staging area for PCG white ships, which could immediately be deployed for quick response in the Philippine Rise. Due to its relative distance to the Philippine Rise — approximately 147 nautical miles — this coast guard base will also allow for the sustained presence of a small armada of PCG vessels, since the base could efficiently meet such a fleet’s logistical requirements.
Meanwhile, the establishment of a Coast Guard Radar Station in Sibutu Island is the most feasible approach to strengthen maritime domain awareness within the nearby vicinity of the Sulu and Celebes Seas. The radar station will be equipped with a Marine Radar, Automatic Identification System (AIS) Receiver, and Coast Watch Monitoring System. Similarly, the presence of Coast Guard white ships in the area can dispel possible pirates and armed sea robbers that intend to board foreign or domestic vessels.
Lastly, the Coast Guard Base Zamboanga will house all coast guard operating units in southwestern Mindanao, which are not only specializing in counterterrorism but also in maritime safety and marine environmental protection.
The most notable contribution of the PCG under Duterte’s administration is its active role in maritime diplomacy. Last November in Beijing, in fulfillment of the established Joint Coast Guard Committee on Maritime Cooperation by Philippines and China, PCG Officer-in-Charge Commodore Joel S. Garcia and China Coast Guard (CCG) Deputy Director General Chen Yide signed an agreement that would promote the atmosphere of partnership and cooperation in the South China Sea. A Hotline Communication Mechanism was established for both parties to communicate with each other in an approachable and cooperative tone. Additionally, the Chinese Ministry of Transport through their Maritime Rescue Coordinating Council will donate radio communications and computer hardware for live video streaming to be used for search and rescue cooperation between the two coast guards in the South China Sea.
While Duterte is presumably inclined toward Beijing, it is notable that Tokyo and Washington are both using their coast guard organizations to influence and redirect the Philippines’ maritime strategy. The Japanese government has conveyed its commitment to delivering two 90-meter coast guard vessels in addition to the ten 44-meter multi-role response vessels (MRRV), which will soon complete its delivery in 2018. On the other hand, the U.S. government will be constructing a $10 million law enforcement facility at the Coast Guard Communication Base in Bulacan.
Such support is not only limited to infrastructure but extends to human resource development as well. The PCG has sent 40 of its personnel to study at the Coast Guard School in Yorktown, Virginia, and 20 have traveled to Japan for various JICA sponsored maritime related training. A similar strategy is gradually being adopted by China: this year alone, 35 PCG officers underwent maritime law enforcement training at China Maritime Police Academy in Ningbo, China.
The PCG has also initiated the first ever ASEAN Coast Guards Forum, which is expected to push through this coming 2018 in the Philippines. The objective of this maiden meeting is to establish a regional cooperation to fight universal crimes like piracy, human smuggling, and drug trafficking without escalating and militarizing the South China Sea and adjacent seas in the Southeast Asian region.
Conclusively, the current administration is not just using the PCG in patrolling the contested waters of the South China Sea. On the contrary, the build-up of the coast guard in the Philippines has more domestic overtones than a focus on the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea issue. Duterte understands that the PCG has more practical functions on its plate than concentrating its meager resources on patrolling the vast contested waters.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a Philippine Coast Guard Officer and a Ph.D. student at the Global Governance Program of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, Japan.