China continues to be aggressive in pursuing its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, despite the verdict given by the Arbitral Tribunal in 2016. President Xi Jinping, in his meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte on 29 August 2019, reiterated that China does not recognize the ruling. The June 9 ‘maritime incident’ – wherein a Chinese vessel rammed and destroyed a Filipino fishing boat and left the area leaving the fishermen floundering at sea - should not be seen in isolation, but rather, analyzed in the larger scheme of things.

The Philippines and China as members of the international community are expected to behave appropriately in accordance with recognized international norms. Both countries are also parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the principal legal framework accepted by states, which codified long-standing customs and norms in the sea. The view that international law is supposed to provide important guidelines to govern the conduct of states is an ideal. In the June 9 maritime incident, China violated UNCLOS Article 98 “Duty to Render Assistance” paragraph 1c. That is indeed a serious violation but realistically speaking, who or what international body is out to punish China? There is none.

The Philippines as a maritime nation, needs a serious national maritime strategy. It has long been recognized that Manila lacks military equipment to enforce its laws and protects its maritime boundaries. Even with the recent military purchases from neighboring countries, these are insufficient to protect its territorial waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The 1994 National Marine Policy (NMP) was a good start, but it had its setbacks. In 2016, the University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies crafted a Review of the 1994 NMP and offered a Strategic Direction for Philippine policymakers.1 As of this writing, the Philippine government has not released a revised NMP. While the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) was established to monitor the Philippine maritime domain, it remains to be an interagency body that waits for the policy direction and guidance from the National Coast Watch Council. It also begs the question of why there was no ‘coordinated response’ from the Philippine government after the June 9 maritime incident, when the NCWC is supposed to be “the central interagency mechanism for a coordinated and coherent approach on maritime security operations”.2

It is within this context that I join the call for the Philippines to come up with a comprehensive and strategic ocean policy.3 As an archipelago, a new ocean policy must reflect the Philippines’ strategic vision for the seas and/or oceans within its territory or surrounding it. Consultations among stakeholders (shipping industry, fisheries sector, tourism industry, energy sector, etc.), experts/scientists, as well as government officials will be the first step in order to have a unified strategy. This ocean policy should protect Philippine seas and marine ecosystem and more importantly, also aim to devise a course of action in handling maritime disputes with neighboring countries.

The Philippines may want to consider the following in crafting our comprehensive maritime strategy:

(1) Awareness and Maritime Literacy, including Research and Development

Education provides a foundation for understanding issues, both national and global, in order for all Filipinos to actively participate in developing solutions to our current concerns. Firstly, “sovereign rights” to exploit resources in the EEZ is not the same as sovereignty over the national territory. There is a confusion within the Filipino population regarding the concept of sovereignty and sovereign rights. Some government officials even claim that the EEZ is part of the national territory of the Philippines. It is the duty of the academe to enlighten the Filipino people on the difference of these terms, especially in relation to the EEZ.

Secondly, maritime and archipelagic consciousness should be incorporated in Philippine education. Offer quality courses on ocean studies and fisheries in our universities . The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) should also boost its training for the fishing industry. For the general public, it is imperative to raise awareness especially on current maritime issues. In the meantime, mainstream media can help facilitate an awakening of this consciousness through their news reports, documentaries and other programs. Moreover, government-owned broadcasting companies, e.g. PTV4 can spearhead programs that can raise awareness among the Filipino public about our country’s geography.

Thirdly, the importance of Research and Development cannot be stressed enough. Manila needs to strengthen its research agenda in marine science, oceanography, impact of climate change to ocean and fisheries, sustainable fishing, development of marine exploration technology, defense technology and shipbuilding. More importantly, the policy makers and decisionmakers should utilize the research outputs in the crafting and implementation of policies related to the issues identified above.

There are migrant fish species, e.g. Tuna. We cannot prevent fish from swimming in the EEZ of the Philippines nor in the EEZ of China. That means the coastal state lucky enough to have the technology to fish in the other areas are clearly at an advantage. The University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) is the leading research institution which could provide valuable data on this front, but we need to increase our marine research stations to cover the entire Philippine archipelago. Further, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) as the lead government agency tasked to develop, improve, manage and conserve the country’s fisheries and aquatic resources should continue developing its major activities namely fisheries research technology, propagation, protection, regulation and extension.

For our defense capabilities, the Department of National Defense (DND) and the AFP could do more research projects on defense technology particularly on naval technology including but not limited to shipbuilding.4 This is something that could be done to lessen our reliance on foreign defense technology, at least in terms of naval assets. It is good news that the Philippine government now has a shipbuilding project in Balamban Cebu, in cooperation with the Australian government.5 The utilization of the local shipbuilding industry is wise as it will defray some costs in the purchase of naval vessels.

(2) Support for the Philippine fishing industry

The Philippine legal victory against China does not necessarily translate into practical terms. Our fishermen will continue to be faced with challenges out in the sea. Filipino fishermen should be a priority of the government; they deserve due attention and assistance. First, they need modernized fishing fleets to compete with foreign fishing vessels. Second, they need protection in Philippine waters, in case another maritime incident happens. Three governmental entities can help them: the Philippine Navy (PN), the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and the Philippine National Police-Maritime Group (PNP-MG).

These governmental entities could lend assistance in a number of ways: (a) awareness of Philippine laws on fishing, and implementation of UNCLOS provisions pertaining to fishing, (b) providing training for communication and reporting protocols, i.e. fishermen should know how, what and who to report to regarding a maritime incident, and (c) governmental policies on the protection of Filipino fishermen as these are included in their mandate. Ultimately, there is a need for a modernization of these three maritime agencies in order to protect our territory and our people, with emphasis on our marine resources and our fishermen.

(3)Defense and Law Enforcement Measures

Defending our maritime boundaries against external threats should have been a priority of the Philippine government long ago. With one of the longest coastlines of the world at 36,289 kilometers, the PN, PCG, PNP-MG and private commercial vessels should unify efforts in guarding our maritime boundaries and marine resources. If we are serious about enforcing the arbitral ruling we received in 2016, we should be monitoring Philippine waters round the clock. Monitoring our seas means we need more ships; ships that are well-equipped and manned with well-trained personnel, under a clear policy guidance. The deployment of ships is another matter of serious discussion, which in the meantime could be addressed by looking at priority areas. Monitoring is the first step – Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), followed by the actual response. Both are important, but the response depends on good and reliable ISR data.

(4) Diplomacy and Alliance Building

There are no real "friends" in global politics. Philippine President Duterte has claimed that China is a friend of the Philippines. But any state leader should never be naïve enough to accept this as true. In the realm of global politics, “there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests”.

The United States, considered a long-time ally of the Philippines, has its own interests in the SCS. In general terms, Washington wants to protect the sea lines of communication, and ensure freedom of navigation and overflight. While the US did not ratify the UNCLOS, it abides by the principles expressed in the Convention. There were reports of recent activities of US naval assets in the SCS area. This does bring some benefits to the Philippines and other countries bordering the SCS, as they feel that America is still out there “to protect global interests.” However, although the projection of American maritime power is important, this is not enough to stop China’s aggressive stance in the SCS. Washington may want to consider other courses of action to balance China, if America is really determined to protect global interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

Having said that, diplomacy still plays a huge role in preventing conflict and maintaining amicable relations with our neighbors and other members of the international community. The goal of diplomats is to broker deals/agreements that will provide the greatest benefits to the people. While the Philippines and Indonesia were successful in negotiating a maritime boundary agreement6, there are other claimants in the SCS that the Philippines still need to dialogue with. The SCS area is replete with challenges that require solutions in the soonest possible time.

It would be wise to develop and strengthen China Studies experts in government and the academe. DFA, DND and other educational institutions would benefit in the increase of China experts, for example in terms of better diplomatic engagements. We need more people who can understand and communicate in the Chinese language, such that we can read directly their government documents/policies. The goal is to know and understand China in order to develop a good engagement strategy.

In the end, the doctrine of self-help still endures. We cannot rely entirely on "allies" or "friends" to protect us from harm. What the Vietnamese did are laudable, and the Filipinos are grateful for their heroic act. However, “friends” like these are rare, especially in the context of global politics. Self-help means that Manila needs to take this matter more seriously. A comprehensive national strategy should be crafted and implemented as soon as possible. This is not a matter to be left to the government alone as all sectors of Filipino society needs to participate, from the military, to the academe, to the fishermen, to the ordinary Filipino. 

1 Co, Edna et al. “National Marine Policy Review and Strategic Direction” in Public Policy Volume XV No. 1, Diliman: University of the Philippines. 2016.

2 Section 1, Executive Order No. 57, September 2011.

3 The Department of Transportation of the Philippines has recently crafted a draft National Maritime Industry Development Plan (2019-2028). However, this government plan is mainly focused on three areas: shipping, transportation and fishing industries.

4 The Philippine Navy, through its Naval Sea Systems Command has recently called for professionals with Science and Engineering backgrounds to augment its technical and naval workforce. This is step in the right direction.

5 Lorenciana, Carlo. “Naval Ships to be made in Balamban” in Sunstar, 25 July 2019. Retrieved on 29 July 2019.

6 The Ph-Indonesia Maritime Boundary Agreement was recently ratified by the Philippine Senate on 03 June 2019. See:

Anna Saberon

Anna Patricia L. Saberon studied Philosophy and International Studies at Ateneo De Naga University and University of the Philippines-Diliman, respectively. She served as a junior diplomat with the United States Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 2013-2015. Currently a member of the ADNU faculty, her research interests include political-security issues, regional and international organizations, maritime security and global ethics.