The Debate | Opinion

The Worst Threat to Philippine Maritime Security

The biggest problem starts with the Philippine government itself.

The Worst Threat to Philippine Maritime Security
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Lieutenantpdg

On September 6, 2011, then-President Benigno Aquino III signed Executive Order No. 57 establishing a new government organization that would address the country’s urgent need for a coherent whole-of-government approach to maritime law enforcement (MLE) and governance. The operating arm of the organization, the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC), was inaugurated on April 28, 2015. As the NCWC turns five years old, it has proven itself to be a promising government mechanism in enhancing governance of the Philippine maritime domain. Unlike the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, Philippine National Police-Maritime Group, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), and other MLE agencies in the country, the NCWC does not operate on ground. Its functions revolve around information collection, processing and dissemination, and updating the common operating picture of the Philippine maritime domain. It provides coordinative assistance to MLE operations and maritime concerns that require interagency collaboration.

In May 2010, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) officially used and introduced the concepts of Automatic Identification System (AIS), Vessel Monitoring System, Vessel Traffic Services, and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The treatment of maritime security transformed with MDA as the new approach. State-of-the-art technology has since been exploited to keep up with the increasing and evolving maritime safety and security threats around the world. The maritime monitoring technology of the NCWC was conceptualized using the concept of MDA, which the IMO defines as “the effective understanding of any activity associated with the maritime environment that could impact upon the security, safety, economy or environment.”

Despite a significant decrease of recorded maritime piracy, kidnapping, and armed robbery incidents within Philippine waters in the last four years, maritime terrorism, maritime disputes, transnational crimes, illegal fishing, and all the other maritime security threats continue to exist. This is not to say that the NCWC’s state-of-the-art MDA technology is useless. In fact, the Center may have one of the most promising MDA technology suites in the ASEAN region with all its radar and monitoring stations, regional coordinating centers spread across the country, terrestrial AIS, remote sensor sites, and vessel-tracking platforms. Despite this, technology is only one aspect of maritime security. Unfortunately for the Philippines, the other aspects — social, political, economic, and legal — have been mostly left unattended.

Having the opportunity to directly work with various Philippine maritime law enforcers in the country, one hears similar stories of disappointment following enforcement operations that were compromised because of legal technicalities and lack of MLE coordination.

In March 2020, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sent out a report entitled “Mapping of the Maritime Law Enforcement Framework and Practice in ASEAN States—The Philippines.” The document provides a comprehensive examination of the gaps in Philippine maritime laws in relation to the country’s MLE and commitments to international maritime conventions like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Because of a lack of harmony between Philippine laws and international maritime laws, the government would often encounter more problems than solutions in MLE cases, especially those that involve other countries or foreign-flagged vessels. Many of these legal gaps have long been recognized by a few MLE leaders; however, because of a lack of priority, or probably lack of information, among Philippine lawmakers and concerned authorities, these flaws in the country’s maritime laws have been left unmended. This negligence is compounded by differences among Philippine MLE agencies.

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Unfortunately, many of the Philippine maritime law enforcers cannot even agree on a working definition of maritime security. For instance, while some consider climate change and maritime accidents as concerns under maritime security, others do not. Furthermore, there is a lack of appreciation for the presence of overlapping functions, which often results in unnecessary accusations of mandates being usurped. Some MLE agencies encourage unnecessary stigma against each other, jostle for credit for successful operations, and blame one another for failed ones. Because of all this, efforts to breed a culture of collaboration and cooperation in MLE operations are significantly jeopardized.

Another critical challenge to Philippine maritime security is the failure of some government authorities to realize that the country’s present security threats are the fruits of deeper socioeconomic and political problems such as poverty, illiteracy, corruption, and lack of political will.

Since the end of barter trade in Mindanao with neighboring islands such as Sabah during former President Corazon Aquino’s administration, Filipinos in the south have suffered from the socioeconomic impact of the decision. As a result, maritime crimes increased, something the whole nation is still seeing today.

In October 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 64 to facilitate the implementation of the revival of barter trade in Mindanao. This is in view of the underappreciated socioeconomic benefits of the BIMP-EAGA, ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), and ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA). Unfortunately, the implementation (as always) proved to be harder than expected. Because of a lack of efficient whole-of-government support, such as the provision of necessary administrative assistance and infrastructure from reluctant government agencies, socioeconomic progress in the area continues to be delayed. As the Filipinos in Mindanao are constantly confronted with worsening socioeconomic problems, many are left with very little choice but to engage in maritime crimes in order to feed their families. Lack of political will is definitely a big challenge. It is made worse by corruption and abuse of power on the part of public officials and law enforcers, who discreetly support, finance, and/or tolerate illicit maritime activities for their own selfish gains. Apparently, there is a lack of maritime literacy in the country not only among common Filipino citizens, but also among law enforcers and leaders.

Filipinos as a whole do not appreciate and recognize the country as an essentially maritime nation more than a land-based one. In its 12-point National Security Agenda, the Duterte administration promised the Filipino nation “safety of life and protection of trade and marine resources against piracy, poaching, illegal intrusion, terrorism, and human and drug trafficking at sea.” In order to fully realize and sustain this promise, the government should invest in programs that will enhance maritime literacy among Filipinos as early as possible in their education. If Filipinos internalize the benefits of the country’s rich marine resources and promising maritime industry, it will be easier to make everyone part of present and future efforts to enhance Philippine maritime security.

The Philippines has a long way to go in its fight against today’s maritime security threats. But with recognition of its own faults, and of the necessity for a conscious effort to work together in addressing the social, political, economic, and legal demands of safer and secured Philippine waters, the country can realize its vision to become a global leading maritime nation.

Ellaine Joy Sanidad is the Chief Intelligence Analyst of the Philippine National Coast Watch Center (NCWC).