Over the past few months, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has expanded its responsibilities beyond its usual task of patrolling the West Philippine Sea, the portion of the South China Sea claimed by Manila. The PCG has now taken on the role of exposing the unlawful activities of both the China Coast Guard (CCG) and alleged Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM). This new responsibility came about following an incident in February, where the CCG used a military-grade laser against a 44-meter PCG vessel that was supporting the resupply mission of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
It is important to note, however, that the decision regarding this role does not rest solely with this agency. The Information Working Group of the National Task Force West Philippine Sea meticulously screens and approves the information that will be released to the public. This aligns with the government’s stance that the South China Sea conflict should not be militarized. Therefore, non-military agencies such as the PCG or the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) have to spearhead the efforts in disseminating public information.
Under the previous government, any issues involving China were only brought to public attention if they were particularly severe, such as the unfortunate sinking of the fishing boat Gimver 1, the overwhelming presence of 220 CMM ships at Whitsun Reef, and the CCG’s hostile use of water cannons against an AFP vessel in a bid to block a mission to resupply Filipino troops stationed on Second Thomas Shoal. Moreover, some incidents were either underemphasized or denied entirely when reported by international media outlets.
However, under the current leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., there has been a notable shift after the laser pointing incident. The PCG now publicly reports the swarming of CMM vessels within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and has even publicized the presence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy ship within the territorial sea of Thitu Island. One noteworthy development is the PCG’s decision to embed journalists and media reporters on their Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) flights to disseminate accurate information not only to the Filipino public but also to the global community.
Apart from understanding the reasons behind the policy shift, there is another intriguing query that arises: What are the strategic aims of revealing Beijing’s aggressive and intimidating conduct in the West Philippine Sea? Although a majority of experts in international security and decision-makers back the disclosure of these findings, it is crucial to determine the ultimate objective of making this information public. There are six plausible explanations why exposing Chinese hostile conduct in the West Philippine Sea is of great significance in Manila’s overall plan.
The Factors Behind the Shift
First, this shift in policy reflects the government’s commitment to transparency and its resolve to protect the country’s sovereignty. In his first State of the Nation Address, Marcos vowed to protect every inch of the Philippines’ territory from foreign powers. Accordingly, his administration has made a concerted effort to keep the Filipino people informed about developments in the West Philippine Sea, without any attempt to deceive or obscure the truth. Marcos’ commitment has emboldened him to take a tough stance, even summoning the Chinese ambassador to Malacañang after the recent laser pointing incident.
Next, the PCG’s efforts to expose illicit activities in the West Philippine Sea have played a crucial role in raising public awareness and garnering support for the government’s stance. With limited information available about the situation in the South China Sea, fake news flooded social media platforms, creating a distorted narrative. This misinformation led many to believe that China was a “good friend” and a “partner for peace and development.” The proliferation of false information was fueled by the rise of “fake news” purveyors on social media channels, which 73 percent of the Filipino population relies on as their primary source of news.
However, as the year began, the national government shed light on the harassment inflicted upon the Philippines by the CCG. This revelation sparked a surge in public awareness, which in turn bolstered support for the PCG and the AFP in their efforts to patrol the West Philippine Sea. The factual accounts, accompanied by striking images and unsettling videos, proved to be a powerful tool in reshaping public opinion and debunking false narratives.
The third objective is to gain support and solidarity from neighboring nations in Southeast Asia. While it is true that Western allies and other like-minded countries have consistently condemned Beijing’s hostile actions, it is important to emphasize that this is not the ultimate goal. After all, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are also claimants in the South China Sea, and Indonesia is currently involved in a dispute with China over the Natuna Islands. It is critical for these nations to recognize Beijing’s aggressive and intimidating behavior, as it will allow them to come together and jointly condemn it as a violation of international law.
By standing in unison, these countries can send a powerful message to Beijing that such bullying actions will not be accepted and that they are committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region. Most significantly, their awareness could also encourage the realization of the need for collective pressure on China to finalize the South China Sea Code of Conduct.
Fourth, exposing China’s hostile actions in the South China Sea could compel it to act more responsibly and respect international law. By calling out its behavior, the international community can hold China accountable for its actions and potentially pressure it to change its approach. While China may be uncomfortable with the attention every time incidents occur in the West Philippine Sea, Chinese officials always deny or downplay their involvement. For example, the Chinese Embassy in Manila denied both the existence of the CMM at Whitsun Reef in 2021 and the use of a military-grade laser in February. However, by continuing to document and publicize these incidents, the international community can build a strong case against China’s actions and potentially force it to alter its behavior.
Fifth, one key point to consider is that publicizing the Philippines’ endeavors in the West Philippine Sea establishes a pattern, presenting its lawful actions as routine. Without adequate exposure, the initiatives taken by the Philippines may be depicted as unusual, leaving room for China to label them as “new” and “provocative” in the future. It is imperative to acknowledge that these missions are standard, acceptable, and legal. Neglecting to publicize the Philippines’ operations in this area can give China the upper hand in shaping the story and manipulating the situation to their benefit. Hence, it is essential to promote the activities of the PCG and AFP to combat any inaccurate narratives China that may later attempt to fabricate.
Lastly, by illuminating China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines is conveying a message that it will not be cowed or coerced into submission. Although the country may not match China’s military and economic might, it will not sit idly by and let China bully its way through the Philippines’ EEZ. By shedding light on China’s aggressive behavior, the Philippines hopes to garner support from other nations that believe in a rules-based international order. The United States, Australia, the European Union, Japan, and other like-minded states can provide not just verbal condemnation but also tangible support such as capacity building to pressure China into respecting international laws, including the UNCLOS.
The Philippines’ failure to expose China’s bullying tactics would be akin to surrendering to China’s dominance. The argument that media coverage may harm diplomatic ties with Beijing is flawed. Chinese vessels openly violate international laws, ignore the Philippines’ sovereign rights, and intimidate Filipino fishermen, demonstrating their disregard for mutual respect and friendly diplomatic relations. Therefore, there is no reason for the Philippine government to be concerned about how China would respond to exposing their disruptive behavior.
Additionally, the information that will be reported to the media is factual, with no exaggeration or falsehoods. As the Philippines does not have the power to confront China directly, it will inform the world for those who value international law to condemn them and even impose sanctions on China’s unlawful conduct.
Despite the progress made in exposing Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, there are still obstacles to overcome in order to sustain and enhance this approach. Foremost among these is the need to bolster the MDA capabilities of the AFP and the PCG. Without the necessary technological infrastructure to monitor the vast expanse of its maritime territories, the Philippines would be unable to effectively monitor developments in real-time. Relying solely on deployed air and maritime assets would yield incomplete intelligence reports that fail to capture the full extent of Beijing’s aggressive and illegal activities. Given this limitation, it is likely that the incidents reported by the PCG are merely the tip of the iceberg.
Another crucial challenge that needs to be addressed is the need for high-level convergence among all government agencies involved in monitoring the West Philippine Sea. The limited resources and assets of each agency must be effectively coordinated to ensure they complement each other, avoiding duplication of efforts and optimizing asset utilization. Without a unified approach, the country’s monitoring efforts may be disjointed and ineffective, leaving the door open for Beijing’s continued aggressive activities. It is only through a coordinated approach that the Philippines can effectively monitor Chinese activities.
Finally, it is essential to maintain the BFAR and the PCG as the primary options for patrolling the West Philippine Sea. While the Philippine Navy plays a crucial role in defending territorial sovereignty, the country must learn from the lessons of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident. The Philippines must avoid falling into China’s gray zone trap and be careful not to be interpreted as a warmongering nation. The current approach of utilizing white ships is in line with regional norms and works to de-escalate tensions among other claimant states while avoiding provocation. By relying on the BFAR and PCG, the Philippines can continue to assert its sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea while avoiding unnecessary conflict.
Marcos Jr. may not have the same military power that his father enjoyed during his presidency, but his government’s approach to sharing factual events and real stories is a more powerful way to muster support – not just from the Filipino people but from other countries also. The publication of China’s blatant disregard of international law and harassment of lowly Filipino fishermen dismisses Beijing’s claim that it supports peace and stability in the region. This approach is a way to hold China accountable for its actions and send a message that the Philippines will not back down in the face of Chinese aggression.