West Philippine Sea

[ANALYSIS] Leveraging transparency against the West Philippine Sea bully

Raymond Powell

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[ANALYSIS] Leveraging transparency against the West Philippine Sea bully
The Philippines has unveiled a steely new tactic in the information war over the West Philippine Sea, but China will continue probing for new signs of mush

Last month when the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) released video evidence of the China Coast Guard’s deployment of a military-grade laser to harass a PCG ship operating legally in its country’s own exclusive economic zone, it helped usher in a bold new method for illuminating gray-zone activity in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

It’s an approach that is already showing impressive results.

Just this month, our team at Project Myoushu  documented two separate incidents where  Chinese maritime militia vessels that usually swarm inside Pag-Asa Island’s territorial sea decided to scatter out of the area. In each case, the timing indicated Beijing’s desire to avoid further public exposure of its bullying tactics. The first dispersal preceded the arrival of a PCG plane full of journalists, while the second anticipated the arrival of the BRP Melchora Aquino and The Great Kalayaan Expedition.

Gray-zone operators like China hate public exposure – they want  their malign activities to stay as gray as possible. Like any bully, they want to accost their smaller victims in the shadows, with whispered warnings to keep quiet about it. 

By opening its mouth, the Marcos administration has demonstrated impressive courage and conviction, and has shown the bully for who he is. This is an important service to both the Philippine people and the world.

But make no mistake – the bully will be back. That’s why it’s important for the government to take steps to ensure the long-term success of this new program. I have two specific recommendations for how to do this.

Embedding policy

First, formally adopt an official and permanent embedded reporter policy.

In 2003 the US Department of Defense issued official guidance that “… media will have long-term, minimally restrictive access to U.S. air, ground and naval forces through embedding.” This reversed a previous policy of keeping reporters confined to “pools” and largely away from military operations. 

Not only did the old policy breed distrust between the military and the press, it squandered opportunities to tell important stories about the military’s professionalism, courage and dedication to duty, and to rally the American public behind important causes like public service and national security.

In adopting the new embedding policy, the US government discovered that the benefits far outweighed the risks. Reporters who accompanied military forces generally acted responsibly, protected sensitive information, empathized with the troops they covered, and told compelling stories to the American people that increased support for the military and its mission.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the PCG would likewise benefit from a well-designed policy of embedding, not only to increase their public support but also to leverage the advantages of a free society against the authoritarian tactics of the country’s maritime aggressor. Beijing would have to consider that any Philippine ship or aircraft it harassed might have media on board, equipped with journalists who would make sure its malign activities were illuminated for all to see.

Maximizing open-source tool

My second recommendation is to embark on a campaign to place commercial automated information system (AIS) receivers in key locations throughout the WPS. 

AIS is an important tool in open-source vessel tracking, but satellite-based receivers only see the larger militia ships carrying Class-A transponders. Most of the smaller militia ships transmit only on Class-B equipment, and when operating far from shore-based receivers they are essentially invisible to the world.

For example, only about 30%  of the maritime militia ships that routinely swarm Pag-asa are currently visible on commercial AIS via satellite. Simply placing a couple of small commercial AIS receivers on the island would light up the gray zone for dozens of miles around Pag-Asa, making it easier for the world to see the extent of Chinese vessel activity.

What makes these recommendations especially attractive is that they cost almost nothing to implement.

Embedded reporters’ salaries are not paid by the government – all they need is a ride. What’s more, they can help relieve the burden from government agencies to expose malign behavior, build national resilience and rally public support for increasing military and coast guard capacity.

Meanwhile, AIS receivers from the large ship-tracking companies such as MarineTraffic, VesselFinder, VesselTracker and others are available for free to anyone willing and able to place them in a location of interest, and to supply them with power and an internet connection. This can include military or government agencies, marine research or educational institutions, non-governmental organizations, media outlets, or even just private citizens who happen to live near the sea. In fact, the equipment usually comes with the added incentive of premium ship-tracking site access for becoming an AIS partner.

For years Beijing has adhered to Vladimir Lenin’s famous maxim, “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” The Philippines has unveiled a steely new tactic in the information war over the West Philippine Sea, but China will continue probing for new signs of mush. Now is the time to secure the steel in place by locking in the benefits of WPS transparency. – Rappler.com

Raymond Powell leads Project Myoushu for the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University in California. He is a retired US Air Force officer with 35 of years of military and diplomatic service around the world, including in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and Australia. 

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