Disguised military force

Senators are expected to at least possess some knowledge of recent international developments.

Wrongheadedly asserting outdated notions about the China Coast Guard or CCG show us exactly why some sitting senators shouldn’t be senators.

Worse, despite having been schooled by maritime law experts and defense officials, Senators Robinhood Padilla’s and Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s smarmy refusals to believe they are wrong about the CCG embarrass the Senate.

Hear Padilla sarcastically telling experts during a joint Senate panel hearing into West Philippine Sea issues: ““Ibig niyong sabihin, iba ang definition ng coast guard ng China? Wow, ha, talaga lang, ha (So you mean, the Coast Guard is defined differently by China? Wow, really, are you sure about that)?”

Most of us may be excused if last week we didn’t know or pay much attention to the fact that since its 2021 transformation by Chinese domestic law, the CCG is now a military force disguised as a civilian force.

But sitting senators can’t claim the same excuse. Senators are expected to at least possess some knowledge of recent international developments since the Senate is constitutionally tasked with scrutinizing and approving the country’s treaties with other countries.

Senators are supposed to enlighten us then. But both Padilla and Dela Rosa inspire us instead of their sheer ignorance of recent Chinese developments that directly affect our national interest.

Not taking Filipino expert counsel, too, is wholly pathetic. It isn’t only Filipino experts but international maritime law experts who said the CCG’s command and control structure had been changed to that of a military-like organization under the centralized command of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission.

True, putting military organizations in charge of maritime law enforcement — which coast guards typically do — is not unique to China.

For instance, the United States Coast Guard is one of America’s five armed forces branches and has an explicit defense readiness mission.

The French, too, have the Maritime Gendarmerie, a paramilitary police force under the operational control of the chief of staff of the French Navy.

Still, the US and French coast guards are considered exceptions rather than the rule insofar as how most countries conceive, structure, and operate their civilian-led coast guards.

China did follow the general practice when it put up its coast guard in 2013.

Since 2021, however, after a comprehensive China Coast Guard Law took effect, China set its coast guard apart from the rest of Asia, except for Vietnam.

China ensuring that military, not civilian government agencies, exert control over its coast guard undoubtedly has far-reaching consequences in the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.

For instance, one consequence of a militarized CCG is that China doesn’t need to declare war in her attempts to expand her de facto control over disputed waters.

A militarized CCG is enough to bolster China’s preferred strategic approach of “slow intensity or low-intensity coercion.”

Other important consequences of CCG’s militarization abound, particularly thorny questions about Chinese CCG law violating significant provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. But that’s for another time.

On a more recent topical note, however, our military officials say our armed forces are already preparing for any eventuality should the CCG go beyond firing water cannons when blocking our ships resupplying the beleaguered Ayungin Shoal detachment.

Our military’s fears are not unfounded.

Article 22 of the CCG law authorizes a CCG vessel to use its weapons without warning against foreign government and civilian vessels.

And there are fears the CCG might use weapons deadlier than water cannons and lasers. Some CCG vessels, in fact, are equipped with destroyer-class 76mm guns.

It behooves the military, therefore, to keep a close eye on any major equipment changes — like larger caliber guns and missiles — on CCG vessels patrolling the West Philippine Sea.

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