MANILA: The Philippines should continue its “assertive transparency campaign” to expose China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), a maritime security expert said on Monday (Feb 12).
Since last year, the Philippines has been consistently publicizing Chinese harassment in the West Philippine Sea through information releases and inviting journalists onboard patrol ships to report what they witness.
Ray Powell, SeaLight director at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, noted the Philippines’ new approach to counter Chinese gray zone activities, or those below the threshold of armed conflict.
The new information campaign is a complete departure from the practice during Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency of belatedly reporting or not at all disclosing incidents of harassment in the West Philippine Sea. At that time, too, the media were rarely invited to witness maritime operations firsthand.
“Starting in 2023, the Philippines really changed tactics and I think it took China by surprise. China was not expecting President Marcos to push back to this degree and definitely it was not expecting to see its activities exposed,” Powell said in an interview with ANC.
“What the Philippines did was it turned on the camera and it turned on the lights and it let everybody see,” he said.
While this tactic may not be enough to deter China, Powell said the Philippines is strengthening the foundation for national resilience and building international support through this “strategy.”
It has also imposed reputational costs on Beijing “so that the world can see that China is in the wrong,” he added.
Powell believes the transparency campaign has increased the country’s leverage in negotiations.
China, he said, could have been unhappy with the campaign and might have asked the Philippine government at a recent meeting for the media releases and embedding of journalists to stop to ease down the tensions.
The Philippine government has not embedded journalists in Philippine resupply missions in the West Philippine Sea since the diplomats from Manila and Beijing met in Shanghai last month where they agreed to manage disputes in the South China Sea. They have been releasing updates on Chinese activities, however.
“Don’t give away your leverage,” he said.
“Ultimately, the issue here is that if you don’t have to harass our ships, there’s nothing to put on television. You shouldn’t worry about whether there’s a camera or reporter on the ship. As they say, ‘Don’t start none, won’t be none.’ Don’t promise we will stop releasing pictures.”
Meanwhile, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea kicked off a regional tour in La Union province on Monday to strengthen the government’s information campaign on the maritime dispute at the grassroots level.
Similar engagements are planned in other parts of Luzon as well as the Visayas and Mindanao.
“We all have a role to play in this fight for the West Philippine Sea,” Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said in a press briefing.
“If we inform the public about the truth, they could have a better judgment and they won’t be vulnerable to fake news.”
“In this cognitive age, it’s important that we preserve the integrity of information space. That’s what we’re here for,” he said.
For its part, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) acknowledged that it has deployed the biggest vessel in its fleet, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, to beef up the country’s sea patrol and protect Filipino fishermen against attempts to prevent them from their livelihood.
“[The BRP Teresa Magbanua] left on Feb. 1 and returned on Feb 9, with the objective of delivering grocery gift packs to about 100 Filipino fishermen, who have expressed their delight over the presence of the PCG at the Bajo de Masinloc,” PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said in government television program “Bagong Pilipinas Ngayon.”
He said the PCG and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources are working to sustain the provision of supplies to the country’s fisherfolk at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).
Tarriela made these assertions to dispute the China Coast Guard’s claim that it had driven out PCG vessels and Filipino fishermen at Bajo de Masinloc.
“The China Coast Guard (CCG) made that statement as early as Feb 5, and with our press statement that we [released] yesterday, we are saying our vessels stayed there until Feb. 9,” he said.
The PCG on Sunday said four CCG vessels, with bow numbers 3105, 3302, 3063 and 3064, carried out “dangerous and blocking manoeuvres” against BRP Teresa Magbanua four times and tried to cut its path twice.
Tarriela said the PCG regarded its mission as a success.
“According to our fishermen, they really appreciate the presence of the Philippine Coast Guard vessel because, in those instances, China’s coast guard became more concentrated on guarding against the presence of the vessels instead of harassing the Filipino fishermen,” he said.
-Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN