China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, an area rich in resources and an important thoroughfare of international commerce, has prompted maritime and territorial disputes with other states, including Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines. To safeguard its claims in the vital waterway, in June 2021, the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG) acknowledged an all-female unit of coastguard radio operators that it dubbed “Angels of the Sea.”
The recognition of the 81-member all-female team of radio operators came at a time where the presence of Chinese vessels in the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was intensifying. Chinese ships have typically displayed hostility towards Philippine efforts to defend the country’s territory against their incursions.
In contrast, an incident at Sabina Shoal in the Spratly Islands on April 27 of this year witnessed a curious turn of events. In response to the presence of seven Chinese vessels within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile EEZ, one female member on board the BRP Cabra issued a warning to the vessels, “Unidentified foreign vessel at Sabina Shoal, this is Philippine Coast Guard, you are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.”
In normal cases, Chinese vessels would respond to such challenges, but this event seemingly prompted them to lift anchor and leave the EEZ. This incident led the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to task a women-led unit of radio operators to safeguard the Philippines’ maritime territories within the South China Sea. At the time, many claimed that this incident proved the effectiveness of female voices in deterring the Chinese vessels. However, it remains unclear the extent to which the operation itself was the cause of the Chinese withdrawal.
Taken at face value, the deployment of the all-female team of “Angels of the Sea” demonstrates a commitment to actively address gender discrimination and inclusivity in command and control roles within the PCG. Rear Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan, the commander of the PCG’s Weapons, Communications, Electronics and Information System Command, and the architect of this policy, maintains that deploying women as radio operators evokes Asian matriarchal sentiments. This approach is built on the premise that female peaceful voices might ease tensions by embodying a sense of stability and calm in the midst of sensitive maritime disputes.
Although this women-led force was created on the precedent of the successful incident at Sabina Shoal, the narrative surrounding its development has presented it more as a way for the PCG to address the challenges of gender equality and women’s empowerment within the service. However, this narrative may detract the PCG from positively demonstrating progress in facilitating a resolution to the maritime conflict.
Undeniably, the creation of an all-female PCG unit could potentially improve the fate of women in uniform by addressing gender discrimination within the armed forces, broadening women’s role in maritime law enforcement, and demonstrating that women are as competent as men at command and control tasks. Additionally, the maneuver could entice more women to join the PCG and inspire a younger generation of women to undertake duties initially dominated by men. Out of the 18,500 current serving PCG officers, just 2,600 are women.
However, the creation of an all-female unit has its limits. Although the strategy has promoted women’s empowerment and equal opportunities, this approach does little in itself to resolve the ongoing China-Philippines maritime dispute that produced the incident at Sabina Shoal and others like it. Taking advantage of the dispute to foreground the PCG’s enlightened viewpoint on gender equality does not offer constructive solutions to the dispute.
Although the voice of the initial “Angel of the Sea” appeared to succeed at Sabina Shoal, it is possible that perhaps China’s decision to retreat was based on a strategic decision to avoid conflict in that particular instance, and not necessarily the direct result of hearing a woman’s voice over the radio. In the long run, this approach may prove to be less than concrete and coherent, as voices can only carry so far.
It would be hasty to assume that whenever confronted with the same conditions as during the Sabina Shoal incident, Chinese vessels will behave the same way. Taking advantage of the dispute to promote gender equality within the service may risk actually downplaying the maritime conflict. A more structured, constructive, and realistic diplomatic effort such as seeking common ground in negotiations and dialogues is what is needed to de-escalate tensions. Focusing on “small wins” like the Sabina Shoal incident is inadequate, as it implies a reliance on the efficacy of women’s voices to halt tensions in contested waters. Given that this could delay a fruitful process of dispute resolution in the South China Sea, it is perhaps more logical to demand coherent and comprehensive bilateral agreements.
In hindsight, the voices of the “Angels of the Sea” may have proved a successful deterrent at Sabina Shoal, while advancing the PCG’s gender equality initiative. However, solely relying on soothing voices to confront security challenges risks downplaying the realities of a sensitive situation. The Philippines therefore needs to consider more realistic options to challenge China’s presence in its waters over the longer term.