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The Philippine Coast Guard’s Modernization: An International Joint Effort

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The Philippine Coast Guard’s Modernization: An International Joint Effort

Over the past decade, the PCG has become a respectable force – with a little help from Manila’s friends

The Philippine Coast Guard’s Modernization: An International Joint Effort

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) personnel gather for Monday morning colors at its National Headquarters in Manila, Philippines, March 11, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Philippine Coast Guard

Amid swelling seaborne trade, rising maritime crime, and intensifying territorial disputes, coast guards are increasingly central to Asian maritime security. However, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has long lagged behind its neighbors. A 2016 estimate put the PCG’s total tonnage at just 11 percent of the China Coast Guard (CCG), even though the two coast guards are responsible for similarly sized exclusive economic zones.

Between 2004 and 2016, the PCG failed to make a single major acquisition, suffered from severe understaffing, and scraped by on a minimal budget. Eight search and rescue vessels received from Australia in 2000, which were too small to conduct long-range patrols, bore the brunt of the PCG workload. The PCG’s neglected state proved disastrous during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, when the PCG was barely able to maintain a one-boat presence at the disputed feature. After three months, it withdrew under a face-saving agreement, effectively ceding the shoal to China.

Today’s PCG has come a long way. Coast guard vessels are now regularly involved in resupplying the Philippines’ South China Sea bases and frequently perform long-range patrols in the Philippines’ maritime zones. Improved maritime domain awareness (MDA) and patrol capacity have enabled the PCG to conduct a transparency campaign to expose Chinese coercive behavior, solidifying Philippine public opinion and winning sympathy from countries around the world. Internally, too, the increasingly capable PCG has enjoyed notable successes, including the downgrading of the abduction threat level in the Sulu-Celebes Sea from “high” in 2016 to “moderate low” this year.

The PCG’s remarkable modernization arises from a convergence of international assistance and domestic prioritization. Soon after the Scarborough crisis, Japan approved a soft loan funding the construction of 10 new vessels for the PCG, more than doubling the fleet when the vessels finally arrived in 2016. That same year, Rodrigo Duterte became president. Duterte believed that strengthening the PCG as a maritime force would advance his internal security goals without antagonizing China. He eagerly courted a diverse range of partners, including Japan, China, and the United States, for opportunities to increase the PCG’s capacity.

Since succeeding Duterte in 2022, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s administration has continued to back coast guard modernization. Under Marcos, however, the PCG has abandoned its policy of deference to China in favor of going toe-to-toe with the CCG. Amid heightened regional instability, allied and partner support for the PCG has redoubled.

Japan is the foremost international backer of PCG modernization, as part of its strategy of strengthening Southeast Asian maritime security agencies to balance China’s maritime power. Of the PCG’s 25 major vessels, 12 were supplied by Japan. The ten 44-meter multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) that the PCG acquired from Japan in 2016 include the BRP Cabra and BRP Sindangan, whose confrontations with the CCG have been broadcast internationally. Additionally, two 97-meter MRRVs delivered by Japan in 2022 are the largest vessels in the PCG’s fleet. Last November, Japan and the Philippines announced an order for five more of these large vessels, with an expected delivery date between 2027 and 2028.

Besides vessels, Japan has contributed significantly to improving the PCG’s maritime domain awareness. In 2018, for instance, it funded 11 of 21 radar stations that the PCG built around the Sulu-Celebes Sea and installed a vessel traffic management system (VTMS) in Cebu province, which has one of the Philippines’ busiest sea lanes. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) also has a long history of training PCG personnel on skills ranging from search and rescue to vessel maintenance, and this has accelerated in recent years.

The United States is another longstanding ally of the PCG. Despite Duterte’s public antagonism toward the United States, his administration oversaw an uptick in coast guard cooperation. In addition to increased exercises with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S.-provided training reached as many as 1,500 PCG personnel during his administration. In 2019, the United States donated an outboard motor training center to the PCG, and in 2023 it donated a larger training center to help the PCG meet the technical education requirements of its expanding fleet. The United States has also significantly aided Philippine MDA by supporting the establishment of the National Coast Watch System (NCWS), a PCG-led interagency mechanism for coordinating maritime intelligence. Additionally, building off the VTMS installed by Japan in Cebu, the United States announced on March 1 that it would fund a feasibility study on expanding the system to 10 new locations. The United States also regularly collaborates with Japan to conduct joint trainings for the PCG. Last June, the PCG, JCG, and USCG performed their first trilateral exercise.

Other global partners have also made valuable contributions to the PCG’s modernization. In 2017, France sold five coast guard vessels to the Philippines, partly funded with development assistance. Among these vessels was the PCG’s first offshore patrol vessel, which won international recognition for its role in the Philippine response to the COVID-19 pandemic. German assistance thus far includes two drones delivered to the PCG in 2022 and an offer to provide more, as the agency works toward its goal of equipping each of its 15 districts with a drone. Australia has also expressed willingness to supply the PCG with drones. Last year, the European Union boosted the PCG’s MDA by allowing it to use its IORIS information sharing system. Additionally, Canada gave the PCG-led NCWS access to its satellite-based dark vessel detection system, which will enable improved tracking of illegal fishing.

While international aid has been indispensable to the PCG’s makeover since 2016, the Philippines’ domestic commitment to realizing modernization has been just as crucial. From 4,000 personnel in 2015, the PCG’s ranks have surged to 30,000, an influx of roughly 4,000 recruits per year. The agency now aims to employ 100,000 personnel in 10 to 15 years, an ambitious goal which would have been difficult even to dream of not long ago. A burgeoning force is testament to the PCG’s popularity with Filipinos—and increasing budget allocations.

Thanks to a newfound appreciation for the PCG, the Philippine Congress has hiked the agency’s allocation fourfold from a mere $120 million in 2018 to $480 million this year. This included the politically costly reallocation of $3.6 million from the vice president’s confidential funds to the PCG. Members of Congress also proposed no fewer than four coast guard modernization bills last year, which would bolster the PCG’s assets and streamline its bureaucracy. Once overlooked, the PCG is now “awash with funds.”

Within a decade, the PCG has become a respectable force for Philippine maritime security. However, in the wider regional context, it continues to trail neighboring coast guards in many respects, even as it faces the most acute threat from CCG coercion. Whereas Vietnamese and Chinese maritime agencies have a nearly constant presence throughout the South China Sea, the PCG struggles to maintain an adequate number of patrols. Moreover, the PCG’s under-resourced response to an oil spill last year calls attention to evolving domestic security challenges that warrant greater attention. While the PCG’s transformation has already engendered tangible payoffs for the Philippines and its partners, those who want the Philippines to contribute to regional maritime stability must remain committed to PCG modernization.

This article was originally published on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.