West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: ‘Transparency initiative’ shifts focus to Scarborough

Bea Cupin

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

View from Manila: ‘Transparency initiative’ shifts focus to Scarborough

PROTEST. Fisherfolk from the Association of Masinloc Fishermen tow and release an 18-foot symbolic maritime bouy at the West Philippine Sea in Masinloc, Zambales on November 6, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

Meanwhile, different middle powers want a piece of the Philippine military's Horizon 3 pie

MANILA, Philippines – After vowing, repeatedly, that the Philippine government’s innovative “transparency initiative” would continue in the West Philippine Sea, Philippine authorities put the spotlight on another flashpoint for Manila and Beijing: Bajo de Masinloc, a shoal located some 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales.

Over the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) accused China of harassment in Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag or Scarborough Shoal).

The BFAR accused the Chinese of using cyanide to fish (the PCG said it could not verify the claim but the National Security Council said it would investigate the allegations) while the PCG said China has reinstalled floating barriers at the mouth of the shoal to stop Filipino fisherfolk from accessing the shoal’s resource-rich but calm waters.

The “transparency initiative” is what the Philippine government – key officials in the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, especially – call its strategy to expose China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in Ayungin Shoal, another feature located just over 100 nautical miles of the coast of Palawan.

What’s the initiative done that makes officials want to continue doing it in 2024? Shaming the superpower China, for the most part.

“Transparency” to the Philippines means being as agile as bureaucracies can possibly be in telling Filipinos and the rest of the world about how Beijing’s mighty China Coast Guard (CCG) and its notorious Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) work together to harass PCG and Philippine military-contracted ships on resupply missions.

Journeys to bring supplies to the lonely BRP Sierra Madre, a Navy ship that was purposefully run aground to serve as an outpost in Ayungin Shoal, are often tense and action-filled – a phenomenon captured in HD and 4k by Filipino journalists who regularly embed in rotation and resupply missions.

Ray Powell, a retired US Air Force officer who now leads the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation’s efforts to expose China’s “gray zone” tactics in the South China Sea, has called the initiative a “game changer.”

Government officials themselves will tell you the same thing.

Leaving Beijing perplexed

While far from being the top concern for the average Filipino, the West Philippine Sea has become a recurring topic both in traditional news media and the wild, wild world of social media.

It has scored points for the Philippines in the area of diplomacy and defense. Allies (the US) and strategic partners (Australia and Japan, most notably), and like-minded countries and blocs (the European Union, Canada, among many others) have consistently backed the Philippines in its debacles in Ayungin Shoal – from harassment by Chinese ships via shadowing or water cannoning to collisions that often leave Manila’s smaller vessels with the short end of the stick.

There’s no doubt that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has made it a policy for the Philippines to be much more assertive in the West Philippine Sea – both through its communication strategy and its defense engagements.

The tension-filled waters have been host to four iterations of “Maritime Cooperation Activity” (MCA) with an ally and a strategic partner – once with Australia in 2023, and thrice with the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command, first in 2023 and twice in 2024. The latest MCA with the United States – a fancy term for a joint air and sea patrol – was held in the first week and continued on to the 3rd week of February.

There is also no doubt that the rather swift 180-turn has left Beijing perplexed. Not too long ago in January 2023, Marcos and a sizable delegation of government officials and Philippine media, ventured off to Beijing for what was the President’s first state visit of 2023.

Rose-tinted glasses were du jour then – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised a “golden age” in diplomatic ties. Just 12 months later, in December 2023, what glittered wasn’t gold, after all. Wang Yi would say by the year’s end: “China-Philippines relationship now stands at a crossroads, with its future yet to be decided.”

That future was charted bit by bit in Shanghai on January 17, when senior officials from both countries met for the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea. There, Manila and Beijing promised to “improve [a] maritime communication mechanism in the South China Sea.”

The PCG, de facto frontliner in the WPS against their Chinese counterparts, had “high hopes with moderate expectations” from the discussion, according to PCG Spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela.

Expect the Philippine Navy, too, to have a more prominent role, at least in the communication strategy in the West Philippine Sea. In late January, the Navy appointed Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad to be its spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea.

Officer, Person, Captain
PH-US TIES. A Filipino pilot executes a final check of the Philippine Navy AW109 helicopter on deck USS Carl Vinson.
Horizon 3, when?

In relation to this, much has been said about Horizon 3, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)’s delayed third phase of its modernization program. But the delay has been serendipitous, giving the military time to adjust its acquisition wish list to align with a pronounced shift in its focus: from internal to external defense.

Excitement has led to speculation over what the Philippines plans to acquire, which in turn led the Department of National Defense to issue a statement in early February reminding the public that “only President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. and the Department of National Defense can issue official statements regarding firm commitments under the AFP Modernization Program.”

As of posting, the buy list in Horizon 3 – whether preliminary or final – has yet to be released.

Still, defense equipment-producing countries are already eager to offer their wares before the AFP.

In early February, the Czech Ambassador to Manila Karel Hejč “reiterated their country’s support to the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.” According to a DND release, the Czech delegation “[highlighted] their defense products, ranging from small arms to various defense platforms. Ambassador Hejč also expressed keenness to pursue government-to-government cooperation, explore joint manufacturing arrangements, and offer financing options for potential projects.”

The Philippines and Sweden are also finalizing agreements leading up to the acquisition of defense equipment. “Sweden intends to participate in the implementation of projects under Horizon 3 of the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program, specifically in the Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) Aircraft Acquisition Project of the Philippine Air Force,” according to a DND release.

India, ahead of the arrival of the long-awaited Brahmos missile system, sent a delegation of businessmen to flex its defense equipment and tech. According to a Philippine News Agency (PNA) report, India’s Ambassador to Manila Shambhu Kumaran said New Delhi was open to offering soft loans for defense procurements.

Kumaran, according to PNA, said India was also open to possible defense industry collaborations with the Philippines.

BILATERAL MEETING. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. welcomes Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to Malacanang during the latter’s two-day visit to the Philippines on September 8, 2023.
Marcos’ March world tour

The jet-setting President Marcos has been Malacañang-bound for the most of the first quarter, only traveling to Brunei and Vietnam briefly in January and February 2024.

What little miles he accrued in the first two months of the year, he’s more than making up for by the end of the first quarter of the year. In end-February, Marcos will be traveling to Canberra, Australia, to a address a “rare joint sitting of Australia’s parliament,” according to Bloomberg.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed Marcos’ visit to Parliament House ahead of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in early March in Melbourne.

Bloomberg notes that a joint address is a “rare honor.” When Marcos marches up that podium in Parliament House to address both the House and Senate of Australia, he’ll be joining the ranks of former US presidents Barack Obama, George Bush, and China’s Xi Jinping, according to Bloomberg.

After Australia, Marcos will be heading to Germany, although details of that trip are still quite scarce. Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo has also confirmed that Marcos will be visiting the Czech Republic before the month of March ends. Again, details are scarce for that trip.

But what do these visits mean? Australia is now a strategic partner to the Philippines. Granting Marcos the honor of addressing Parliament sends a signal that Canberra is serious about deepening ties with fellow middle power Manila, as Beijing grows more aggressive in the South China Sea.

Marcos has also been keen on deepening ties with other middle powers. A visit to Germany builds on an earlier stop by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to Manila.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala also happens to have been Marcos’ first visitor from Europe as President.

Here’s another interesting thing to note: Fiala has been working on improving and expanding ties with Taiwan, much to China’s chagrin. – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


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.