Over the past two years, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has played a frontline role in Manila’s pursuit of maritime safety and security. From exposing China’s bad behavior at sea and enforcing the 2016 Arbitral Award to introducing administrative reforms that led to the hiring of thousands of additional personnel to guard the country’s vast maritime zones, the PCG has now become a very consequential player in the Philippines’ efforts to advance its maritime rights and interests.
The period of transition from former President Rodrigo Duterte to current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and the visionary and reform-oriented leadership of PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio Abu were key determinants of the PCG’s transformation and, broadly, the Philippines’ new approach to maritime strategy.
The 2022 Presidential Transition
During the final year of the Duterte administration, the defense and foreign policy establishments in Manila had already lost interest in accommodating China’s policy preferences. After all, Duterte, in good faith, pursued a foreign policy that expected Beijing’s goodwill.
For some time, Duterte disregarded the 2016 Arbitral Award that invalidated China’s sweeping nine-dash line claim. He appeared to have no interest in deepening security relations with China’s rival, the United States, and downplayed some of China’s coercive maneuvers in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea that lies inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Duterte administration, however, found value in the PCG’s non-military nature and saw it as a valuable institution to keep maritime security engagements with the United States and maintain presence in the South China Sea, both without provoking China. In other words, Duterte’s approach encouraged Beijing to show a willingness to compromise and adhere to international law without “losing face.” But China did not return the favor.
When Marcos was elected in 2022, the Philippines changed tack. While the new president kept engagement with China on the table, particularly on the economic front, he wanted to ensure that outreach would be counterbalanced by a sound security strategy.
The Marcos administration quickly moved to strengthen its alliance with the United States and strategic engagements with Japan and Australia. The Marcos government expanded the number of Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites open to U.S. military personnel from five to nine. At the same time, Manila began formal discussions on a possible Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan and conducted more joint maritime drills with Australia. Marcos also has publicly called out China’s coercive offshore maneuvers.
Despite the seemingly diverging approaches to maritime strategy, both Duterte and Marcos share similar views of the role of the Coast Guard. They see it as a potent force for pursuing the country’s maritime rights and interests, while avoiding the “militarization” of the Philippines’ approach to dispute management and not antagonizing China. The Marcos administration built on the PCG reforms already started during the previous leadership and allowed the Coast Guard to perform an even more consequential role in advancing the national interest. Because there was no animosity between Marcos and Duterte, the change in policy did not result in domestic political bickering.
The PCG Leadership
From the final months of the Duterte administration to the first 16 months of the Marcos Administration, the PCG was under the leadership of Admiral Artemio Abu. Under his watch, the PCG has adapted to new circumstances. First and most notable is the more consequential role of the PCG in the Philippines’ broader South China Sea policy.
For instance, unlike in the past, where the PCG’s maritime patrols and activities were mostly unannounced and unnoticed, the PCG now takes a proactive role in exposing Beijing’s aggressive actions against Philippine-occupied features and Filipino fishermen. The initiative operationalizes the Marcos administration’s new transparency policy as one way of holding China accountable and protecting, in Marcos’ own words, “our sovereign rights and… territorial integrity, in defense of a rules-based international order.”
As head of the PCG, Abu authorized embedding independent journalists and media personnel on PCG vessels and aircraft during patrol and other missions. Doing so allowed the international community to bear witness to the bullying and unsafe and coercive behavior by Chinese maritime forces, including its maritime militia.
Abu’s operational decisions also enabled the PCG to play an even greater role in enforcing the 2016 Arbitral Award, which invalidated China’s “nine-dash line” claim and clarified Philippine maritime entitlements, yet without the burden of “militarization” accusations. In a telling example, Abu pushed for the installation of 10 navigational buoys in the West Philippine Sea, which security analysts consider sovereign markers, reinforcing the country’s maritime safety administration in these areas.
The PCG also has played an important role in supporting the regular rotation and resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal, ensuring that fresh provisions are delivered to Filipino military personnel stationed aboard the beached BRP Sierra Madre.
Abu also ensured funding for four new lighthouses in the northernmost territory of the Philippines, in Batanes, facing Taiwan. The area is an important shipping route, albeit remote and far from major Philippine maritime facilities.
Second, Abu has championed coast guard diplomacy and endeavored to establish linkages with other coast guard organizations in the region. Indeed, given how some actors use white ships to upend the status quo and press illegal claims, cooperation and collaboration with other coast guard organizations are critical to building shared norms that can contribute to a more stable and rules-based maritime order. Moreover, considering the shared responsibilities of coast guard organizations to protect the marine environment, ensure sustainable fishery practices, guarantee safety of navigation, and enforce maritime laws, dialogues with other coast guards become imperative.
Under Abu, the PCG has actively supported efforts to enhance regional cooperative mechanisms among ASEAN coast guard agencies through the ASEAN Coast Guard Forum. The PCG’s coast guard diplomacy reached South Asia earlier this year when Abu visited New Delhi and met Indian Coast Guard Director General Rakesh Pal to sign a memorandum of understanding for “enhancing maritime cooperation.” Abu’s election as chair of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, a position that the Philippines will hold until 2025, can be seen as a testament to Abu’s and the Philippines’ renewed leadership on regional maritime affairs.
Finally, during Abu’s term, important reforms were instituted focusing on human resources and fiscal management. On human resources, the PCG secured the approval of the Department of Budget and Management to recruit 4,000 additional personnel for both Fiscal Year 2022 and 2023. As a result, the PCG will boast a formidable workforce of over 30,000 before the fourth quarter of 2023, larger than the Philippine Navy. This would allow the PCG to effectively fulfill its mandates covering the country’s vast maritime jurisdiction, including manning newly procured vessels.
The PCG also actively supports the national government’s Women, Peace, and Security programs by establishing its own initiatives aimed at increasing the number of women service members, and removing obstacles to women’s full participation in PCG operations.
On fiscal management, Abu was the first commandant in over a decade to advocate for an increase in the PCG’s intelligence and confidential funds. Given the challenge in the South China Sea, and the difficulty of securing the country’s vast coastlines and archipelagic waters, increased intelligence funds are helpful. Since 2009, the PCG has only received a meager $200,000 to support intelligence operations, hindering its ability to effectively fulfill its responsibilities in maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime security. In addition, Abu’s reforms also included instituting mechanisms for greater transparency in procurement and asset management.
The Next Commandant
The Marcos administration still has over four years before the next presidential election. But Abu will be retiring this month as he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56. The question then is, will the new PCG commandant build on Abu’s initiatives and continue the trajectory of reforms under the Marcos administration?
Unlike the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, the PCG has yet to reach full institutional maturity. For instance, critical staff positions in the organization are typically replaced when a new leadership assumes office. The new officers and programs reflect the priorities and personality of the new leadership. Consequently, sustaining institutional reforms becomes challenging.
Notwithstanding the PCG’s transformation of late, challenges remain. Based on the target personnel troop ceiling of the PCG, it is expected to hire 7,000 additional personnel by 2025. The next commandant should have experience with or thorough understanding of personnel administration. Given that Congress is now considering billions of pesos worth of intelligence and confidential funds for the PCG, the next commandant will have to deal with an organization awash with funds, not subject to regular mandatory audits. The temptation for corruption will be greater. The next commandant should not only continue Abu’s administrative reforms of putting up guardrails against abuses but also have no record of corruption or delinquencies.
Finally, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and tensions over Taiwan are both expected to increase in the coming years, with the PCG expected to play a role, both at peacetime and during contingencies. Since the PCG is now playing a greater role in Philippine diplomacy and regional cooperation, Marcos should ensure the next commandant possesses a sufficient understanding of geopolitics and international relations and appreciates the importance of a rules-based maritime order.
The bottom line: for the Philippines to continue to play a positive role in shaping regional maritime order, it is essential for the next PCG commandant to be competent and committed to reforms. The next commandant should build on Abu’s initiatives that align with the president’s independent and principled foreign policy direction and maritime strategy.