Amid open disagreements between Beijing-leaning Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the US-trained Philippine military, the country’s coast guard has emerged as an unlikely kingmaker.
Throughout the past three years, the Filipino president and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have repeatedly spoken and acted at cross-purposes.
While Duterte has openly portrayed China as a crucial strategic partner and his personal ‘protector’, the AFP has rapidly expanded bilateral security cooperation with the United States. Despite the Filipino president’s open hostility towards the West, the Philippine military conducted close to 300 joint activities and exercises with the Pentagon this year, more than any US ally in the entire Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, to this date, the AFP has refused to sign even a single major defense deal with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, a former AFP general, has even lambasted China’s “bullying” amid ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. Despite being hailed as China’s ‘most trusted friend’, Duterte has failed to fully reorient the country’s maritime security policy in favor of China.
But this dynamic could change with the appointment of a new commandant in the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the outspoken and self-confident Vice Admiral Joel Sarsiban Garcia, who has openly advocated for warmer ties with China. If anything, coast guard forces across the region, from China to Vietnam and the Philippines, are fast becoming key players in the intensifying struggle for the South China Sea.
A New Force on the Horizon
Until recently, the PCG was a largely miniscule, underappreciated, and ill-equipped law enforcement agency, which played second fiddle to the Philippine Navy in safeguarding the country’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea.
Things changed dramatically, however, following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, which marked the lowest point in Philippine-China relations following a months-long naval standoff in the contested area. Deprived of a capable coast guard then, the Philippines made the crucial mistake of deploying a naval frigate to intercept Chinese fishermen poaching in the area.
The upshot was a dangerous and hopeless showdown with an armada of Chinese coast guard forces, which eventually seized control of the contested shoal. The shoal falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and China’s nine-dashed-line claim.
By deploying a gray hull – namely a military vessel – the Philippines brazenly escalated the situation in favor of China, which boasts one of the world’s most powerful fleets, now rivaling even the US’. Traditionally, coast guard vessels are deployed for law enforcement purposes, including interception of illegal fishing in a country’s traditional waters and EEZ.
Eager to avoid a similar mistake, Filipino policymakers as well as traditional partners were determined to develop a modern Philippine coast guard fleet. Soon after the Scarborough Shoal standoff, Japan donated multi-role patrol vessels to the PCG, while the US assisted in the establishment of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) under its Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) program.
More recently, the US Coast Guard has also expanded its joint exercises with its Filipino counterpart as both forces expand their presence across the South China Sea. The aim is to strengthen the Philippines’ maritime security and domain awareness capabilities so that Manila can better protect its sovereign rights in adjacent waters and avoid unnecessary escalation with rival states such as China.
The Philippine Department of Transportation (DOTr), which oversees the PCG, has also expanded its capacity-building investments. In recent years, the DOTr has transferred new patrols vessels and monitoring equipment to the PCG, which is in the middle of a recruitment bonanza. As part of its plan to develop a 36000-strong workforce, the PCG has sought to recruit up to 4,000 officers for commissioning and enlistment within this year alone.
Man of the Hour
Even more crucially, the Philippines’ top policy-makers have upgraded the PCG’s role and overall jurisdiction. Staunch Duterte ally and Philippine Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade has made it clear that the country’s coast guard will now be at the forefront of the protecting the Philippines’ interests and sovereign rights, stating that it is now “in charge of the maritime activities related to UNCLOS and on the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea].”
Moreover, the PCG is now led by another staunch Duterte ally and advocate of closer cooperation with China. In late October, the Filipino president appointed the Coast Guard's former deputy commandant for operations and chief of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC), Vice Admiral Joel Sarsiban Garcia, as the new coast guard chief, replacing outgoing Admiral Elson Hermogino, who retired on October 22. Unlike any of his predecessors, Garcia has rarely shied away from controversy, including his open advocacy for closer cooperation with China in the South China Sea.
Well-versed in international maritime law, he has also often cast doubt on mainstream legal arguments against China’s expansive claims in the area, partly based on conversations with the author in 2017. He has controversially downplayed the presence of Chinese warships close to the Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys, while publicly cautioning Philippine seamen from operationally defying China’s control of the Scarborough Shoal.
Most controversially, Garcia has openly supported joint exploration agreements with China in the South China Sea, a proposal that has been heavily criticized by leading jurists in the Philippines. In fact, fresh from his appointment as the new Philippine maritime czar, Garcia endorsed the proposed joint exploration agreement with China in the energy-rich Reed Bank near the Spratlys as being “within the bounds of our Constitution. And I would say that the Philippines would be better off to have that cooperation.”
The commandant added, “How are we going to explore the vast resources we (own) with respect to the law of the sea (if there is no exploration)?…We have to follow the direction of our President because he is the chief architect of our foreign relational policy. We have to submit ourselves to the wisdom of the President.”
For Garcia, China should instead be seen as a crucial partner in facing shared threats, especially maritime piracy and the trade of narcotics across the area. With the PCG drawn into Duterte’s infamous drug war, the new PCG chief, who also heads the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, is prioritizing nontraditional security cooperation.
Instead of focusing on confronting Chinese incursions into Philippine EEZ, Garcia seems more interested in cooperation with China in the realm of counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, and counter-narcotics operations. To him, China is not a threat, but instead a key partner. With Garcia in charge, Duterte has found another vital ally in his push for rapprochement with China, which surely welcomes the new Philippine maritime czar.