News Commentary

The power of the public in deterring gray zone tactics

Alynna Carlos - Philstar.com
The power of the public in deterring gray zone tactics
China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel 5205 directed a military-grade laser light at BRP Malapascua, which was on a rotation and resupply mission to assist the Philippine Navy posted in Ayungin Shoal on February 6, 2023.
Facebook / Philippine Coast Guard

For decades, the Philippines has relegated the task of responding to China’s gray zone maneuvers in the West Philippine Sea to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Departments of Defense and Foreign Affairs.  

However, recently, news organizations, social media and the academe have taken it upon themselves to bring the issue straight to the hearts and minds of the Filipino public.
Ordinary citizens are quick to record and circulate online unusual incidents in the West Philippine Sea which are picked up and disseminated by news organizations, opinion writers and vloggers. Moreover, developments far out at sea caught by advanced information systems are readily assessed by analysts and eventually publicized.  
Another key development is the aggressive public campaign of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which effectively exposes China’s expansive and aggressive maritime activities and acts of intimidation including swarming of fishing and militia vessels, blocking of resupply missions, tailing of scientific vessels, and pointing military-grade lasers at PCG personnel.
The speed by which information spreads has progressed exponentially, and this has helped raise public awareness in the local, national and international fora. This is a welcome development. In the age of accessible data and information, public opinion can be a powerful tool against China’s gray zone tactics.
The constant discussion of the West Philippine Sea issue in the public realm has three major consequences. First, it raises the knowledge level of our people and incites a sense of patriotism. Second, an informed, involved and empowered public will strengthen the resolve of our leaders to shape stronger state policies, strategies and action. Third, the relentless reporting of Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea can help solicit international support for a rules-based order in the West Philippine Sea and gather support for our claims of sovereignty and sovereign rights.
On March 8, 2023, Stratbase ADR Institute, in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Philippines, organized an event entitled “Countering Gray Zone Operations in Maritime Indo-Pacific.” Speakers agree that addressing gray zone tactics in the West Philippine Sea now includes heavy public engagement and building of a solid narrative consistent with national interests. 

In the keynote speech of H.E. Anke Reiffenstuel, Ambassador, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, stated inclusive cooperation from all countries is needed for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific Region.

“We need to strengthen partnerships with like-minded countries. This can involve cooperation on maritime security, information sharing, joint military exercises, [and] coordinated diplomatic efforts. We also need to enhance maritime domain awareness through the use of advanced technologies and intelligence gathering,” Amb. Reiffenstuel said.

According to PCG Commo Jay Tarriela, the public discourse and growing awareness of China’s bullying behavior and aggressive action allow the Philippines to gain support from the international community and like-minded states. It is also a way to hold China accountable.  

Col. Raymond Powel, US Air Force (Ret), echoed this by arguing that exposure to these activities is key as it builds support from the public. Likewise, public engagement also pushes China to recalibrate and think twice before making a move in the West Philippine Sea.

As RADM Rommel Jude Ong (Ret), professor of Praxis, Ateneo School of Government, asserted, now that there is awareness of gray zone operations, there is a need to act on it.

Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea explained that acting and standing up for our lawful maritime rights is the only way forward. 

To better position the Philippines in responding to gray zone operations, Dr. Charmaine Willoughby,? Associate Professor of the ?De La Salle University – Manila, stated that the country needs effective transparency measures, deterrence capabilities, and a whole-of-government approach.  

For Dr. Renato de Castro, trustee and program convenor of the Stratbase ADR Institute, the Philippines must maximize its diplomatic relations with the United States, Australia and Japan. Together, they can engage in security agreements, troop deployments, arms transfers, and multinational exercises. These engagements contribute to the greater effort of defending a rules-based international order.
Parallel to the high-profile activities of the PCG in countering gray zone operations are the efforts of the AFP through its Western Command. Records show that the presence of the AFP in the West Philippine Sea remains strong, active and constant.

The country’s nine island-detachments are manned by military personnel who keep a close watch on the activities of foreign vessels. Aside from on-the-ground presence, Philippine Navy ships constantly conduct rounds in our waters while Navy and Air Force flights regularly provide maritime domain awareness. 
Complementing military and diplomatic initiatives, support from the international community and the Filipino public is critical in implementing policies in the West Philippine Sea. Creating a strong narrative based on our national interests and involving the public in national discourses will embolden the country to enforce the 2016 arbitral victory. Through an empowered and engaged Filipino public, the Philippines prompts China to recalibrate its tactics, respect the arbitral ruling, and refrain from its aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea. 


Alynna Carlos is a program manager at the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute. 



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