Military chief: Philippines to deploy maritime militia in South China Sea

Camille Elemia
Puerto Princesa, Philippines
Military chief: Philippines to deploy maritime militia in South China Sea Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., the Philippine military chief, speaks to the media during a press briefing at Western Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, Aug. 10, 2023.
Eloisa Lopez/pool/Reuters

UPDATED at 4:10 p.m. EDT on 2023-08-10

The Philippines plans to deploy its own maritime militia to defend its sovereignty amid a raging territorial row with China, the Filipino armed forces chief said Thursday as he visited an island on the frontline of the sea dispute.

Reporters who accompanied Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. on his tour of Palawan asked him if the military would deploy maritime militia forces as part of its transition to territorial defense from traditional internal security operations.

“Yes, it’s part of our plans, that’s part of our reserve force development,” the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines replied.

“When we say reserve force it’s not just land-based forces, so we are also trying to develop our reservists who will be able to operate in sea,” he said during his visit to the AFP’s Western Command in Puerto Princesa, without releasing details about the militias.

China and Vietnam, which are among other countries with overlapping claims in the South China Sea, are known to operate fleets of ships and boats crewed by militia members.  

Brawner said the military had established reserve units for deployment to the West Philippine Sea – Manila’s name for the South China Sea waters within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“It’s already being implemented. We have established reserve units, but we are going to wait for the platforms or the vessels that actually would be used,” Brawner said, emphasizing that the way forward “depends on the funds.”

Brawner said there were plans to deploy ships and aircraft to guard the EEZ and establish the military’s presence in the sea.

“We want to use our fisher folks as reservists, we are going to teach them how to help us defend our country,” he said.

Brawner said the military also needed funds to improve its facilities in the West Philippine Sea.

In 2020, diplomatic tensions between China and the Philippines escalated with Manila’s discovery of large numbers of Chinese militia ships, which appeared to be trawlers, clustering within the waters of the Philippine EEZ.

Suspected Chinese maritime militia boats are seen anchored off a disputed shoal in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Feb. 21, 2023. [National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea handout/AFP]

On Thursday, Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who leads the Western Command, said more than 400 foreign fishing boats, mostly from China, were intruding into the country’s territory.

Carlos said about 190 of these boats were in the vicinity of the Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef, which is about 134 nautical miles from Palawan or more than 600 nautical miles from China.

“It’s more than 400 [fishing boats], based on the last monitoring. That’s foreign vessels’ incursions in the West Philippine Sea now,” Carlos said, referring to the most recent check on Wednesday.

“This is inside the EEZ … maybe 85% of these are Chinese – that’s my estimate based on my [information],” he said.

According to Carlos, military leaders suspect that Chinese fishing fleets are in fact Chinese militias. He noted the involvement of two Chinese fishing boats during the harassment of two Philippine Coast Guard and two supply boats near Ayungin Shoal last week.

“Our suspicion is they are militia vessels taking orders from the [China] Coast Guard. … The incident shows that they seem to be working … taking orders from the Chinese coast guard,” Carlos said.

Military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. speaks to troops at the Western Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, Aug. 10, 2023. [Eloisa Lopez/pool/Reuters]

Brawner went to Palawan island amid a flurry of defense and diplomatic meetings that followed the incident at Ayungin Shoal.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the country’s task force on the West Philippine Sea said the Philippines and its defense ally, the United States, were in the final stages of an agreement to launch joint patrols this year in the South China Sea to deter encroachment by foreign ships.

Apart from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, parts of the South China Sea are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.


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