West Philippine Sea

Padilla, Dela Rosa question US help in West Philippine Sea: Hindi ba natin kaya?

Bea Cupin

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Padilla, Dela Rosa question US help in West Philippine Sea: Hindi ba natin kaya?

Senator Robin Padilla during the Senate hearing on the present situatiom at the West Philippine Sea, on September 12, 2023.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

Senators Robin Padilla and Ronald dela Rosa wrongly assert that the China Coast Guard is a civilian force. Padilla's main point: the US should not be in the West Philippine Sea.

MANILA, Philippines – An incredulous Senator Robinhood Padilla on Tuesday, September 12, could barely believe what he was hearing from officials of the Department of National Defense (DND), and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG): that while the PCG was a uniformed civilian force, its counterpart and rival in the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), was not.

Ibig ‘niyong sabihin, iba ang definition ng coast guard ang China? Wow, ha, talaga lang, ha (So you mean, the China Coast Guard is defined differently? Wow, really, are you sure about that)?” said Padilla said during a joint Senate panel hearing into issues in the West Philippine Sea, or parts of the South China Sea within Philippine territory.

Before the senator’s exasperation, Defense Undersecretary Ignacio Madriaga was explaining that a coast guard’s status – whether it’s civilian or military – differs, depending on the country.

Padilla was asking if it was appropriate for an American Navy plane to be present in the West Philippine Sea, the source of conflict between the Philippines and China, when it was the PCG and the CCG going head to head.

What Padilla got wrong – and seemingly refused to believe – was that China’s structure was different. The CCG, since 2018, has been under China’s Central Military Commission. It used to be under Beijing’s State Oceanic Administration.

‘Wag natin ibahin ang international law… ang coast guard ay civilian in nature, police nga yan eh… sinasabi po ba natin na ang coast guard ng China ay hindi civilian in nature?” Padilla had asked just moments prior.

Maritime expert lawyer Jay Batongbacal would tell Padilla and the rest of the hearing that no such international law to define a coast guard exists. Senator Ronald dela Rosa, despite Batongbacal’s explanation, would later insist that it was a “universally accepted concept” that coast guards are civilian forces.

Padilla would eventually reach his main point: that the United States, the Philippines’ sole treaty-ally, should not be in the West Philippine Sea.

Padilla, Dela Rosa question US help in West Philippine Sea: Hindi ba natin kaya?
US as treat-ally

A US Navy Poseidon plane – typically used for maritime patrol and reconnaissance missions – was flying over the West Philippine Sea in the two most recent resupply missions of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s commissioned civilian boats escorted by the PCG. The two missions were still met with CCG harassment, but were successes – in contrast to an August 2023 mission that was blasted with water cannons from the Chinese.

Padilla, who had apparently ventured into the West Philippine Sea with a small group of people and the PCG before, insisted that the Philippines should cruise solo in defending our waters. “Hindi pwede na tayo [ay] umasa sa Amerikano (We cannot depend on the Americans),” he said.

Kinaya po natin ng anim na taon na walang ‘Kano eh,” he added, presumably referring to the years under former president Rodrigo Duterte, a close ally of Padilla’s.

Under Duterte, ties between the US and the Philippines turned cold – Duterte made a fuss over a supposed pivot to China, although the former Davao mayor later recalibrated his foreign policy towards the end of his term.

Ties have been reinvigorated dramatically under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has kept Washington an even closer ally. In Marcos’ first year of office, the Philippines expanded American access to military bases to preposition their equipment and provisions. Defense guidelines were also finalized during Marcos’ May 2023 official working visit to Washington DC.

Despite a January 2023 promise of “maturing” ties between China and the Philippines, the situation in the South China Sea has turned difficult.

Speaking before Chinese Premier Li Qiang and leaders from Southeast Asian, as well as from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and India, Marcos criticized the “dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea.

He didn’t say who the aggressor was but he didn’t need to. It could only have been China.

Are we ready?

Defense officials were quick to insist that whether the Americans would provide the extra muscle or not, Philippine uniformed services – the AFP and the civilian PCG – were ready to defend the West Philippine Sea.

Hindi tayo aamin na hindi natin kaya ang trabaho. Kaya po ng Philippine Navy, kaya ng Philippine Coast Guard yan,” said Madriaga. (We will never say that we cannot do this task on our own. The Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard will do it.)

Batongbacal also reminded Padilla that it was China, and neither the US nor the Philippines, which first escalated tensions in the South China Sea.

The grounded BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II ship that serves as the Philippines’ outpost in the West Philippine Sea, was run aground in 1999 in response to China’s moves to control the area.

The Philippines has been subject and victim of China’s aggressive moves in the West Philippine Sea. Most recently, under “matured” ties with Marcos, China pointed lasers at, blocked and harassed, and used water cannons against the PCG.

For Batongbacal, the escalation of China’s actions and the AFP’s delays in modernization has made it especially important for the Philippine to seek out its allies.

The US is not the only country that the Philippines has forged better ties with, amid China’s actions in the volatile waterway. The Philippines recently upgraded its relationship with Australia to a “strategic partnership.”

Manila has also boosted ties with nations not considered its “traditional” allies. India recently signed maritime cooperation deals with the PCG, and ties with the United Kingdom may expand on “security and defense.” Maritime security was also a major point of discussion between Marcos and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

At Jakarta, on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Marcos met with Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and American Vice President Kamala Harris. The US vice president spoke about how the three countries could work together against “unilateral attempts to change the status quo” in the South China Sea.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, who has been calling on the expansion of intelligence and confidential funds for agencies like the PCG amid tension in the West Philippine Sea, said complex problems call for a “multilateral foreign policy.”

“A bigger coalition is a better coalition,” she said.

And when push comes to shove, the AFP and PCG are sure to have at least one other “soldier” ready and willing to join arms: former police chief Senator Ronald dela Rosa.

When the times comes, tawagin ‘nyo kami,” said the Senator, who also volunteered his colleagues – Padilla, Hontiveros, Senator Francis Tolentino, and Senator Jinggoy Estrada – as those who’d fight for the Philippines in the South China Sea. – Rapper.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.