Philippine Coast Guard's evolving roles in national security
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For more than a decade, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has emerged as a significant maritime force for the country's national security in various capacities. Due to PCG's steady increase of budget since 2008, it acquired modern assets and recruited additional troops. Its success from getting the national government's support goes way back during Arroyo's presidency; as the PCG played a significant contribution in her Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH) project by ensuring the safety and security of roll on-roll off (RO-RO) port terminals nationwide. During the time of Aquino, the PCG had evolved from merely a maritime safety regulations enforcer but as part of the strategy in patrolling the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to demilitarize the territorial dispute. For President Duterte's term, some scholars perceived PCG as an appeasement strategy to deal with China; while at the same time being utilized to advance maritime cooperation with other countries, particularly with Japan and Southeast Asian countries.
Although much has been written on the PCG's current role in territorial claims, it is essential to underscore that it has equally critical diverse mandates relevant to national security, particularly maritime safety, marine environmental protection, maritime law enforcement, and other constabulary functions delegated to it. Measuring the merit of the PCG in national security primarily on the territorial claim is a shortsighted appraisal.
Its task in ensuring the safety of life and property at sea by conducting vessel safety inspection to all domestic vessels contributes a significant impact not just on public safety but also on the national economy, which largely depends on the shipping sector. The PCG also carries out port state control inspection to foreign flag vessels that enter the Philippine ports to ensure their compliance with international regulations. Moreover, as these vessels, foreign or domestic, traverse the treacherous Philippines waters, the PCG has the peculiar role of maintaining more than 600 lighthouses as a tool for the mariners to navigate safely.
Interestingly, PCG is currently recognized as one of the critical agencies during typhoon season: in monitoring vessels' movement, in conducting maritime search and rescue, and in responding to flash floods. Likewise, in those instances that vessels ran aground or capsized, the PCG can combat oil/chemical spill to protect the marine environment from further damage. In maritime law enforcement, the PCG ominously boosts the national government's strategy in addressing the piracy and armed robbery at sea in the Sulu and Celebes Seas through its strategic vessel deployment and maritime domain awareness capability. Further, it is also cooperates with the Bureau of Customs in thwarting smuggling activities as the Philippine Fisheries Code mandated the PCG as one of its enforcers.
Besides these duties, the PCG being an agency under the Department of Transportation was tasked to support the department's programs and activities like deploying K-9 units in train stations, bus terminals, and airports. At present, the PCG's significance during this pandemic was illuminated by its essential role of conducting reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing to returning Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) since last year.
The PCG Modernization
Japan and France's loan agreement with the Philippines also propelled the PCG's acquisition of brand new vessels. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded the construction and delivery of the ten 44-meter Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRV), which are now strategically deployed nationwide. Japan will also be supplying two 94-meter Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) to the PCG in 2022. For France, it funded and built four 24-meter patrol boats and the PCG's first 82-meter OPV. Unlike the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the PCG's acquisition agreement with foreign countries is not that complicated to execute.
Interestingly, most security analysts interpret this foreign support in curtailing China's territorial claim or boosting the Philippines' capability in asserting its territorial claims. However, such an assessment is a departure from how they interpreted Duterte's posture in the South China Sea. To analyze whether these vessels were intended to be used for PCG's increasing role in patrolling the disputed waters, it is necessary to look into its length, materials used for its construction, and even capability. Evidently, these vessels were not designed for this specific purpose alone; instead, its utilization is most beneficial on the domestic overtones for an archipelagic country like the Philippines.
This is why the current administration, despite its averseness in tackling the dispute, supported the PCG modernization. The government recognized the benefit of strengthening the PCG in protecting the maritime trade, strengthening maritime cooperation in addressing non-traditional security threats in the region, and addressing domestic concerns. PCG's multitude of roles from maritime safety to marine environmental protection and maritime law enforcement is the reason why it continuously gained support from the past and present administrations.
The PCG’s contribution to national security could not be exclusively determined by its presence in the WPS. It would be unfair to the men and women who are on 24/7 duty risking their lives to faithfully perform their roles not just in the maritime sector but even at the traffic-congested roads, airports, port facilities, and train stations. It is worth noting that the Philippine National Security Strategy averred that national security is not just anchored on the traditional concept of national defense. However, it includes the welfare of its people, the promotion of economic development, and protecting the environment. Interestingly, these are the areas that the PCG’s mandates enduringly targets to accomplish daily.
The PCG’s multi-mission capability allowed it to weather the presidential transitions from Arroyo to Duterte. Though these administrations had different priorities and strategies, the PCG’s adoptability and acceptability on the strategic direction of whoever the President is permitted it to gain support. Its emergence in the next coming years is to be expected. It could not be impeded by the upcoming election next year, considering that PCG’s contribution to national security is too significant not to notice.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander and is currently a Ph.D. candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu. All views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the official stand of any particular institution.