Admiral Joel Garcia, known as the Philippines’ maritime czar, bowed out of the uniformed service on the first day of June, having reached the compulsory retirement age. He was replaced by another presidential appointee who hailed from Mindanao, Vice Admiral George Ursabia. Although Garcia had only been the commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for eight months, he made headlines for apparently being close with China, and for his unpopular take on the 2016 arbitral ruling on the China-Philippines maritime disputes.
At the same time, his peculiar closeness with the Japanese government has also attracted attention to how Garcia balanced the East Asian giants in dealing with the Philippines’ maritime security affairs. Interestingly, before he was appointed commandant the U.S. government also recognized Garcia as a reliable partner in developing the maritime domain awareness (MDA) infrastructure of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC), which paved the way for his appointment as the director of the NCWC in 2015.
With Garcia’s departure, many maritime security scholars and analysts are now pondering the role of the PCG in Duterte’s regime and how the new commandant will be able to balance the influences of these external powers as he takes over the helm. It was also speculated that President Rodrigo Duterte will appoint Garcia as part of his government bureaucracy.
When the Third Meeting of the Joint Coast Guard Committee on Maritime Cooperation concluded in January, the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) delegation proposed that the next meeting be tentatively scheduled in May. The meeting was to be held in Fujian, China before the retirement of Admiral Garcia. Since this fell through amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new Commandant Ursabia will take up the cooperation his predecessor had established with China on various issues like the hotline communication mechanism, engagement protocol at sea, information sharing, and capacity building.
However, scholars are interested more in whether the next talks will tackle the real issue of CCG vessels’ harassment of the Filipino fishermen and its persistent presence, together with the Chinese militia, in the Philippines’ claimed water. Ursabia’s engagement with the CCG in this meeting will be the defining moment as to how he will approach Duterte’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy.
The other implication of Garcia’s retirement is whether he will still be able to complete his tenure until April 2021 as elected chairperson of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Due to the overwhelming support of Japan and the United States, Garcia was elected to that role with the consensus of the 20 member states in 2018. Though Ursabia may replace him, the member states’ conflicting concerns may be difficult for a prospective replacement to grasp immediately, especially when it comes to pushing for complicated resolutions that touch the interest of other powerful countries. It is still uncertain whether the outgoing commandant will still be permitted to retain that post, or if Ursabia will take over as the Philippine governor in the Council and continue to serve the remaining term as chairperson.
It is worth noting that this ReCAAP title made Garcia closer to the Japanese government, which allowed him to receive grants to construct more radar stations in Mindanao. During Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s visit to the Philippines last January, despite his tight schedule, Motegi visited the Philippine Coast Guard and expressed his support for improving the capability of both the PCG and NCWC.
Currently, it is yet to be determined whether the Japanese commitment will still be the same despite the change in PCG’s leadership. Although the PCG still expects the delivery of two 92-meter Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) loaned from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the new commandant may have to weigh in to seek more loans from Japan or from European countries like France, which delivered the PCG’s first 83-meter OPV. Since France and other EU countries are also finding a way to compete in shipbuilding for maritime enforcement units through government-to-government (G2G) sales, Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines now have alternatives besides Japan.
Similarly, it is still unclear whether Garcia will also have to vacate the director post at the U.S.-funded NCWC. Though the PCG leadership and Office of the President independently decide who will be appointed to head the brain center of the National Coast Watch, the U.S. government undeniably monitors the choice. The U.S. government would assess the new leader to decide if it would still be willing to support the improvement of the NCWC’s MDA infrastructure.
Without a doubt, the role of China, Japan, and the United States will test the professional and rational judgment of the new PCG commandant. Nonetheless, it is vital to take note that his stand on maritime security affairs will likely not depart from the naval perspective, since he was a classmate of the flag officer in command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy (PN), Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, at the Philippine Military Academy. It could be expected that during their terms, the PCG and PN’s courses of action in patrolling the contested waters in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea (WPS/SCS) will converge and set aside service competition for their institution’s credit.
Being the former area commander in Palawan in 2015, Ursabia has a clear strategic and tactical understanding of the Philippine-occupied territories and the PCG units vis-à-vis the limited assets that he could deploy to patrol the WPS/SCS. Further, he had the first-hand experience of apprehending illegal Chinese fishermen in Palawan when he was the commanding officer of one of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) patrol vessels. Nevertheless, it is yet to be established how he would face his Chinese counterparts in China this year or whether he would even participate. However, with such a service record, it could be anticipated that his stance against the violators of the rule of law will not be compromised.
As regards Japan, it is essential to highlight that Sasakawa Peace Foundation has also invested in him. Ursabia was able to complete his master’s degree at World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, in 1999 through the generosity of the foundation. Indeed, he would continuously be supported by the Japanese government through the mediation of the Nippon Foundation from capacity-building projects to deployment of experts from Japan Coast Guard (JCG), and the improvement of MDA capability in Mindanao. In thinking about how he would handle the chair of ReCAAP (though, again it is not yet decided whether Garcia will still be the Philippine representative) it is worth considering that Ursabia’s education and network at WMU will help him deal with various issues in the Council.
In terms of the United States, it is imperative to underscore that Ursabia’s over 33 years of military and coast guard service have ingrained in him the importance of the American allies in the Philippines’ maritime security strategy. In numerous capacities, he had supported activities and training conducted by Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF West), International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), U.S. Navy Task Group 73.1, and the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). He is also an alumnus of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, where he attended a comprehensive course. With these various engagements with the U.S. government wherein he was consistently vetted, there is no doubt that the Americans will still offer their support in whatever capacity they can give.
The headway that his predecessor made on regional coast guard cooperation, especially with its immediate neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, is another critical concern that Ursabia has to give attention. The emerging roles of the Malaysian Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) while be crucial in addressing nontraditional security threats in the porous region of the Sulu and Celebes seas. Much depends now on how Ursabia could sustain ties with these maritime law enforcement agencies and gain their support in addressing piracy, armed robbery at sea, kidnapping, and other nefarious activities of Abu Sayyaf Group in Mindanao.
The Philippine national budget has already been realigned to sustain the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, it could be possible that some of the programs and activities of the PCG this fiscal year may be suspended or even canceled. This could be the best opportunity for Ursabia to show how he could be innovative in diplomatically reaching out for other countries that could support the PCG, especially those activities related to capacity building, training exercises, the maintenance cost of its increasing number of vessels, and even subsidies for counterpiracy operations.
Though this analysis of how the new PCG commandant would weigh ties with China, Japan, and the United States is based on his service record and past experiences, it remains to be seen as to how Ursabia would balance his professional judgment and personal conviction with the intention of the commander-in-chief. Intriguingly, some scholars observed that Garcia’s inclination toward China was different before President Duterte was elected in 2016, and when he was still aspiring to be appointed as NCWC director. It could be asserted that regardless of the PCG commandant’s personal views, his appointment will still be colored by the fact that he serves at the pleasure of the president.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander and is currently a Ph.D. candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu.