Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has named a new coast guard commandant who is widely viewed as his new “czar” for the South China Sea, an appointment that could put the wider military establishment on a back foot regarding their sea tensions with China.

Vice Admiral Joel Sarsiban Garcia, a former Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) deputy commandant for operations and chief of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC), a law enforcement nerve center, is an outspoken proponent of closer cooperation with China, especially in counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations.

Garcia’s appointment – and the coincident elevation of the PCG into a primary state agency overseeing South China Sea affairs – figures to serve as a counterbalance to the increasingly critical position of the US-leaning Philippine military, which has been openly critical of China’s recent frequent incursions in Manila’s claimed waters.

“We are confident that the commandant, a man of vast knowledge, competence and integrity, would continue to lead and advance the PCG to greater heights,” said presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, who hailed Garcia as a visionary and transformative leader.

Lacking a mandate and capabilities, the PCG has historically played a secondary role in the South China Sea disputes. In recent years, however, PCG forces have received capacity-enhancing support from various foreign partners.

They include Japan, which has provided multi-role patrol vessels, and the US, which assisted the establishment of the NCWC through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

New Coast Guard chief Joel Sarsiban Garcia in a flag-waving file photo. Photo: Philippine Government

In the past year, the US Coast Guard has also expanded its joint exercises with the PCG, as part of a broader plan to enhance maritime domain awareness and security capabilities among Indo-Pacific allies and strategic partners.

In a vote of confidence, Philippine Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, whose department oversees the PCG, made it clear that the “Coast Guard would be in charge of the maritime activities related to UNCLOS and on the [South China Sea],” referring to the UN law of the sea agreement.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) is expanding its assistance to the PCG through the purchase of new patrol vessels, maritime monitoring equipment and an expansion of its total workforce to as many as 36,000 staff. The PCG is expected to recruit up to 4,000 new officers for commissioning and enlistment before the end of the year.

Garcia, known for his scholastic interest in maritime international law, has emerged in recent years as a vocal supporter of closer cooperation with China in order to peacefully manage and defuse South China Sea disputes.

That’s put him on the other side of those opposed to what is widely viewed as China’s rising assertiveness in contested waters. Earlier he controversially downplayed the presence of Chinese warships close to the Philippine-held Thitu Island and the contested Sandy Cay.

Chinese vessels have in recent months effectively blocked Philippine attempts to ship supplies and building materials to Thitu, which is home to a decrepit air strip that could have enhanced strategic value if upgraded.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

More recently, he publicly cautioned a Filipino captain aboard a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned oil tanker who refused to move away from the China-claimed Scarborough Shoal despite repeated warnings by Chinese naval and coast guard forces.

The incident, widely reported in the local media, highlighted the opposed views of the wider military establishment led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lornezana and Garcia’s coast guard.

Garcia commended the Filipino crew for asserting their right of passage around the contested shoal but with a big diplomatic caveat that some critics saw as soft-pedaling on China.

“The complication is this: We don’t know the foreign relationship of Liberia with China and the goods being carried by the ship commanded by a Filipino captain is owned by a Greek cargo owner which is intended for China. And we don’t know the relationship of Greece and China,” he added.

“In other words, if you are a Filipino ship captain, you have to show your passion for nationalism for your country, but then again one must understand the responsibility and obligation as [an overseas foreign worker] serving another government,” Garcia said.

Other top Philippine security officials, including Lorenzana, openly praised the ship’s captain – a former navy office – for his tough stand vis-à-vis China. Lorenzana has been openly and frequently critical of China’s harassment of Filipino fishing vessels and military personnel in the area.

Philippine activists hold a protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Makati, the financial district of Manila, condemning what they say is China's intrusions into the Scarborough Shoal, known to the Chinese as Huangyan, in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Philippine activists protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Manila condemning China’s intrusions on the Scarborough Shoal. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

 

China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), after a weeks-long naval standoff in 2012. China’s control of the feature, security analysts say, is pivotal to its ability to establish an aerial defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the sea.

Garcia has also been openly supportive of joint energy exploration with China in contested areas, a controversial proposal that has come under sharp criticism from leading jurists including recently retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio as illegal.

“Almost all legal pundits will agree that the terms and conditions proposed by China are still within the bounds of our constitution. And I would say that the Philippines would be better off to have that cooperation,” said Garcia when asked about proposals for a joint development agreement with China, including in the contested and energy-rich Reed Bank.

“How are we going to explore the vast resources we (own) with respect to the law of the sea (if there is no exploration)?…We have to follow the direction of our president because he is the chief architect of our foreign policy. We have to submit ourselves to the wisdom of the president,” he added.

Garcia’s appointment as de facto South China Sea czar likely signals a greater focus on non-traditional security issues, namely counter-narcotics and counter-piracy operations, rather than territorial disputes.

In recent years, the PCG has also been drawn into Duterte’s controversial drug war and counter-piracy operations involved in confiscating large shipments of illegal drugs into the country originating mostly from mainland China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

Garcia, who also heads the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, has said that his priority will be on counternarcotics and counter-piracy law enforcement operations rather than repelling Chinese incursions in Philippine waters.

The PCG’s new direction under Garcia is likely music to Beijing’s ears, which has bid to present itself as a key partner in prosecuting Duterte’s drug war, including through enhanced cooperation with relevant Philippine agencies such as the PCG.

Whether Duterte’s apparent bid to play divide and rule politics inside his crucial naval security services, however, may be less warmly received among the top brass.