Philippine Coast Guard unit challenges China
Foreign fishing boats were submerged in Philippine waters near a coral reef point known as Sabina Shoal. They bore no official markings, but their blue hulls made of steel reinforced to ram other ships were the telltale signs of the Chinese Maritime Militia. They had not come to fish, but to claim the sea.
A white patrol boat approached. A woman’s voice rose through the crackle of a radio: “Here are the Philippine Coast Guard. You are in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. You are required to provide the following: ship name, intention, last and next port of call. “
The stalemate ended quietly when the seven Chinese boats weighed anchor and sailed to other waters. Radio operator Ensign Gretch Mary Acuario has been hailed as a hero on social media and hailed in local reports as “the woman who made the Chinese ships leave.”
“She has more balls than the Philippine president!” wrote a reader responding to an interview with Acuario in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The incident of April 27, which was captured on video, has made public the Philippines’ latest ploy to send an all-female unit of Coast Guard radio operators to counter Chinese aggression in the hotly contested South China Sea. China’s actions in the region, including violating other nations’ territorial waters and building military facilities on man-made islands, have become a dangerous flashpoint between Beijing and Washington.
Nicknamed the Angels of the Sea, the group of 81 women will soon patrol the country’s so-called Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles off the Philippine coast in an area dotted with boulders and reefs claimed by China. The women were recruited believing they would be better able to fend off unwanted foreign ships and defuse a potential geopolitical crisis, as their voices would remind opposing crews of their “wives or mothers,” officials said.
The Angels of the Sea will become the “voice of [a] a peaceful and rules-based order at sea, especially in our country’s sensitive maritime borders, ”said Vice-Admiral Leopoldo Laroya, recently appointed Chief Coast Guard.
The program has drawn criticism as sexist and for reinforcing gender stereotypes in a country whose president has a history of misogynistic remarks. This “trivializes” the long-standing maritime dispute with China, according to the women’s political organization Gabriela.
The Coast Guard defends the task force, citing Acuario’s meeting in Sabina Shoal – as well as another incident two months later when she peacefully chased two Vietnamese fishing boats from Philippine waters – as proof of her success .
“It’s not sexist,” said Rear Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan, who came up with the idea for the unit in 2018 after leading anti-piracy operations in the Celebes Sea. “This is an optimal use of their strength. There are things that only women can do. Crisis management is one of them.
Anadale Dela Cruz, who was recruited for the Angels unit, agrees. The daughter of a policewoman, Dela Cruz said: “Women have more patience. We can send a strong message in a calm tone.
Whether gender makes a difference when it comes to upholding maritime sovereignty is debatable. But the Angels program, which has sparked skepticism among international relations and gender studies scholars, highlights the Philippines’ sudden desire to resist Chinese provocations after years of inaction.
The 1.4 million square miles of water in the heart of Southeast Asia is one of the most contested regions in the world – with overlapping claims from seven countries, all vying for better access to vast offshore energy resources and control of a waterway responsible for one-third of annual world shipments.
No country has behaved more vehemently than China, claiming historic rights to almost all of the sea. It has built dozens of outposts on contested reefs and tiny sandbanks, including some now have airstrips. A fleet of Chinese maritime militias serves as an irregular naval force, using civilian ships to threaten ships from other countries. China has also given its coast guard the power to fire weapons and requires foreign ships, including submarines and tankers, to report their presence to Chinese authorities.
Few countries have suffered the shock of Chinese encroachment more than the Philippines. For years, the dispute escalated as a source of national shame with the loss of territory to the Chinese, such as the Manhattan-sized coral reef known as the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen saw their livelihoods disappear when Chinese ships stranded. to venture further out to sea.
Since taking office five years ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has refused to challenge Beijing, hoping a friendlier relationship would attract billions in Chinese loans and investments. He argued that confronting the militarily superior Chinese was reckless. He downplayed as “a piece of paper” a landmark 2016 decision in The Hague that rejected Chinese claims to waters in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
But when financial largesse never materialized and criticism mounted that Duterte was “Crawling in front of China”, his administration has started to change course, fearing political repercussions with an election looming in 2022, experts have said.
The arrival of a massive flotilla of Chinese maritime militias near a boomerang-shaped strip of land called Whitsun Reef in March provided an opportunity to retaliate. The incursion sparked an increase in Philippine Coast Guard and naval patrols and a wave of diplomatic protests. Duterte threatened to send warships to claim the Philippines’ natural resource claim.
Then, in early May, just days after Acuario pushed back the Chinese boats at Sabina Shoal, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. went wild in a tweet telling China to “GET OUT THE F — SORT” from the South China Sea. The notoriously provocative diplomat, who compared China to a “naughty idiot,” then apologized and deleted the post.
The unusual display of defiance against Beijing set the tone for different branches of the Philippine government to take the lead in what the Filipinos call the Western Philippine Sea. The media-savvy Coast Guard posted a video of Acuario’s Radio Challenge on the service’s Facebook page, which has hundreds of thousands of followers and serves as a recruiting tool.
The Coast Guard has modernized and grown rapidly under the Duterte administration, more than tripling its strength to 20,000 in the past five years. It is favored by Duterte as a way to resolve the confrontation diplomatically instead of deploying the country’s chronically weak navy armed with WWII and Vietnam War ships.
“There is no reason to militarize the situation,” said Gavan of the Coast Guard. “The army steps in when diplomacy breaks down. And the Coast Guard is all about diplomacy.
As China rapidly builds up its maritime forces and the United States restores its engagement in the region, tensions are running high. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group deployed to the South China Sea on Friday as Beijing worries about a deal this month for America and Britain to sell the nuclear submarine technology to Australia.
“This [Angels] program aims to show the Filipino people that this administration is finally doing something, ”said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. “Public opinion has been very clear that this administration’s policy of accommodating China is increasingly unpopular.”
Dela Cruz, 30, said she has long wanted to serve her country in uniform. As a young girl, she greeted her police mother every morning on her way to work. She couldn’t afford to go to military school or the police academy. Her older sister, who was a nurse, gave Dela Cruz her old textbooks and uniforms.
But after graduating as a nurse, Dela Cruz was approached by a Coast Guard recruiter. She ignored her father’s suggestions that it was “man’s work”.
She has completed her Angels training and is learning Mandarin in order to be able to decipher Chinese communications. It is well known, she said, that Chinese crews can interpret Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines. She now studies whenever she’s off duty, muttering Mandarin phrases under her breath.
There are nights, however, when her heart races to think of the moment she will have her first encounter with a foreign ship. Then she remembers her mother and the challenges she faced as a female officer. It fills her with pride.
“Only men were allowed to do this work until we arrived,” she said.
Times editor Pierson reported from Singapore and special envoy Balagtas See from Manila.