Coordinating rhetoric and practices in the West Philippine Sea - Blueboard by Alma Maria O Salvador

June 12, 2018

Pag-Asa Island. Photo from

The Philippines under the Duterte Administration should construct a narrative in order to make sense of its position in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).  This machinery has to formally bridge the chief executive’s rhetoric, and the words and actions of Philippine defense and military officials.  Practices and speeches are no different from each other because they provide meanings and structure  understandings.   Thus, texts and actions  that pertain to the WPS,  whether at higher levels or on the ground should be able to explain and underpin the government’s perceptions, perspectives, interpretation of the what is threatening and its response to it.
Securitization theories are useful as they seek to answer the following questions: How do actors respond to a security threat? What do actors do in order to beef up maritime security?   From a  securitization  perspective,  political elites  such as  chief leaders  and executives securitize by transforming an (any) issue into  security agenda through  emergency measures,  authoritative speeches, declarations and national  addresses that heads of states make in order to ‘lift’ an issue from the political to the security realm.  Practice-based securitization  focus, on the other hand, on actions and practices of technical and bureaucratic experts who work with agencies on the ground.   In the field of maritime security, these practices include surveillance, maritime domain awareness, border patrol and joint exercises,  among  others.  
There is an apparent gap between President Rodrigo Duterte’s and Secretary Allan Cayetano’s rhetoric and the practices that take place at the level of the offices of National Defense and the Armed Forces. The gap stems from when the President unreflectingly comments that the Philippines will go to war with China or carelessly jokes that it willsecede to be part of China’s province.   The imperative directed at the political communication offices is to bridge this gap of meaning and coherence.    Acts, plans and practices that the military and defence actors undertake in the contested islands should  form part of the official narrative on the WPS   in the context of the asymmetric power relationship with China.
A brief survey of written media sources reveal groups of practices that  may be categorized  in terms of air surveillance, joint patrol/military  exercises  and  rehabilitation of outposts and runways in the WPS.  These are all aimed at strengthening the Philippines’ ability to develop an awareness of the operating  maritime  and air spaces.  
In 2016, there were talks of the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAAP) installation of a flight tracking system on Pag-asa island that will improve satellite-based detection of aircrafts.  This  specific plan has been followed up by the installation of communications,  navigation, surveillance and air traffic management  (CNS/ATM)systems   that seeks to improve  air identification  of  ‘100 per cent of the Philippine  air space’.  The initiative, bared on January 2016 was said to be part of a larger Pagasa island  surveillance system  that was intended to  track mainly commercial flights.  Additionally, this is particularly  relevant given that there are multiple flights  over Pagasa island’s airspace. 
CAAP’s initiative is supposed to enhance our airspace surveillance  capability  which  in 2016 was based on  a few operating radars.   The government -approved JICA- financed CNS/ATM Systems  are targeted at building  radar facilities as a means to improve the ‘surveillance coverage’ of Philippine  airspace.
A second category of practices that the Duterte government  needs to build on are the patrol and military  exercises with other countries.  Joint patrols help improve naval capabilities in surveillance, intelligence exchange and law enforcement.   Recently, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia launched a post-Marawi crisis coordinated  trilateral  patrols  in the Sulu-Sulawesi waters as the government’s  response not only to terrorist threats but to the continuing threats of  piracy, armed robbery, illegal arms and drugs trade, and human trafficking.  The Sulu Sea Patrol Initiative  has resulted in the institution of monitoring stations and of transit corridors under the management of the triborder states. 
A third set of practices relates to a March 2018 news on the acquisition and arrival of three TC 90s from the Japan Ministry of Defense.  These better-equipped equipment is expected to boost Philippine military presence  through the aerial  patrol of Panatag and Scarborough shoals.  Naval Public Affairs Office Captain LuedLincuna said that these aircrafts will help establish maritime domain and situational awareness in the WPS.  Newly acquired TC90 aircrafts which make up the  initial batch of aircrafts   that former President Benigno Aquino entered  with Japan under a lease arrangement, have been used by the Japanese and Philippine navies in joint  patrol exercises in the West Philippine Sea in early 2018.  
Last year, the Philippine Navy announced the delivery of construction materials in Pagasa Island. Considered part of the targeted rehabilitation measures of outposts in the WPS, the construction is supposed to increase the number of landings in Panatag island, deliver food supplies to military and civilian constituents and provide fishing shelter  for  fishers. Defense Secretary DelfinLorenzano said in January 2018 that the proposed construction of a beach ramp in Panatag island will aid the delivery of the construction supplies.
It is interesting to note that both Philippine  defense and naval  officials have de-conflicted their messages and actions as regards  the Panatag island rehabilitation.  These moves affirm that despite the ‘symbolic’ value of the Philippines’ presence in Panatag and Thitu islands, the practices of military  and defense actors on the ground  reflect  a strategy  consistent with Philippine sovereignty in the WPS.  The same actors, Secretary Lorenzana and former Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año’s pursued symbolic politics when they visited Thitu islands while carried by a Philippine airforce C130 transport plane. Both officials undertook flag raising in the contested  Thitu island  on April 2017.
The Duterte government  should  construct a coherent policy that communicates to external   and internal  stakeholders its  twin strategy of diplomatic restraint and economic collaboration  with  China  while it pursues activities  (and it should fund these activities) that are aimed at strengthening maritime security through joint patrols, aerial and maritime domain  awareness, intelligence and surveillance capability.   This narrative should  be directed at de-conflicting the sovereignty-lined concerns in the WPS.  This will mean  articulating  alternative scripts and at the same demonstrate resolve that focus on the practical side of enhancing maritime security through he protection of Philippine constituencies  in the Kalayaan Island Group,  the promotion of the securities of sea lanes,  transit corridors, borders and the protection of our marine resources through maritime domain and situational awareness.
The challenge of China’s overwhelming  power and bullying is so great. To cohere public responses  from the foreign, defense, and military offices  and to prioritize modest credible  defense through  maritime domain capability upgrade is to contribute to the consolidation of  our defence position in the West Philippine  Sea.
Alma Maria O Salvador, PhD is Assistant Professor of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University