The Philippines and the United States could soon begin conducting joint coast guard patrols, including in contested parts of the South China Sea, a Philippine government official announced yesterday.
In an interview on CNN Philippines, Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)’s spokesperson on South China Sea issues, said that there had been “ongoing talks” about the “possibility of joining the U.S. Coast Guard in a joint patrol” in disputed waters. Tarriela did not provide details on their scale or timing, but said that it was a “certainty” that joint patrols would eventually happen.
“This is not in the infancy stage. There is already clear path of possibility since the Defense Department of the United States has also supported the joint patrol with the Philippines Navy and the U.S. Navy,” Tarriela said in the interview. “There is also a possibility that it will be conducted in the South China Sea in support of the freedom of navigation of the United States government.”
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense said earlier this month that the two sides had “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea,” though the exact nature of the patrols – such as whether they would involve navy or coast guard vessels (or both) – is the subject of ongoing negotiation. President Rodrigo Duterte suspended joint patrols and maritime exercises in contested areas of the South China Sea shortly after taking office in 2016, part of his policy of distancing Manila from Washington, its long-time security ally, and titling toward Beijing.
Though partial, the announcements by both the Pentagon and the PCG seem to suggest that the resumption of joint patrols in one form or another is simply a matter of time. This would be no surprise, given the rapid warming of relations between the Philippines and the U.S. since Duterte vacated the presidency in favor of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last July.
In the months since, the Marcos administration has stiffened its stance toward China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, where Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels have in recent years encroached repeatedly into parts of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone that lie within Beijing’s expansive – and widely contested – “nine-dash line” claim. The Chinese claim was effectively invalidated by a Hague-based international tribunal in 2016, but that has not stopped the Chinese government from pressing its claim.
The latest high-profile incident took place on February 6, when the PCG accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of pointing a “military-grade laser” against a PCG ship performing a resupply mission for Filipino troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. This prompted the Philippine government to lodge a formal complaint with Beijing, and for Marcos to summon Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express his “serious concern” over the “increasing frequency and intensity of actions by China against the Philippine Coast Guard and our Filipino fishermen.” Over the weekend, in a speech to military alumni, Marcos declared that the Philippines “will not lose an inch” of territory.
Manila’s more vocal policy on the South China Sea disputes has been undergirded by the rapidly thickening security partnership with the United States. The two sides recently agreed to expand the U.S. military’s access to Philippine military facilities under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, not long after green-lighting the construction of new facilities for U.S. troops in five military bases in the Philippines.