PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. on Wednesday vowed to modernize the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), saying it plays a key role in enforcing the country’s sea laws and in protecting its sovereignty.

At the same time, the coast guard touted its increased presence in areas occupied by the Philippines in the South China Sea that are being claimed by China.

“You are the frontline in the defense of our maritime territory, in the defense of our economic zones, in the defense of our baselines,” Mr. Marcos said at an event marking the 121st anniversary of the coast guard. 

“Although this may not have been originally part of the mission of the Philippine Coast Guard, you have nonetheless been performing that mission with honor, with skill, with dedication,” he added.

The coast guard was under the Defense department before it was transferred to the Office of the President in 1998 through an order issued by the late President Fidel V. Ramos.

Less than a month later, Mr. Ramos eventually transferred it to the Department of Transportation and Communication, which was split into two into separate agencies in 2016 under a law signed by the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III.

The coast guard’s proposed P21.26-billion budget for 2023 was cut by some P300 million, according to ABC-CBN News, citing Acting Commander Commodore Armand A. Balilo.

“I assure you that this administration will always be behind you, supportive of your efforts and initiatives to modernize the PCG, which will redound to the better delivery of service to the nation,” Mr. Marcos said.

The Philippine Coast Guard has intensified its presence in the South China Sea, Bajo de Masinloc and Kalayaan Island Group, Coast Guard Admiral Artemio M. Abu told the same event.

China claims sovereignty to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s nine-dash line map, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims for some islands.

In May, the coastal authority sent five ships and air assets to install buoys on islands of Lawak, Patag, Likas and Parola in the Kalayaan Group, Mr. Abu said. The buoys “guide mariners and serve as sovereign markers.”

He also said their flagship vessel, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, was deployed in August for the resupply mission for Filipino soldiers stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines calls Ayungin. Several Chinese vessels were monitored in the area during the mission.

A similar resupply mission conducted by Philippine-flagged boats in November 2021 was blocked by the Chinese Coast Guard, which fired water cannons on the boats.

“The president has guaranteed that not a square inch of Philippine territory will be abandoned to another nation,” Mr. Abu said. “Rest assured that the PCG is committed to the country’s position in ensuring territorial integrity.”

Under the Aquino administration, the coast guard “evolved from merely a maritime safety regulation enforcer,” according to an article written by coast guard expert Jay Tristan Tarriela and published by the Philippine Strategic Forum.

The Aquino government had given the PCG an important role in patrolling Philippine areas in the South China Sea “to demilitarize the territorial dispute,” he said. 

Scholars saw the coast guard as “an appeasement strategy to deal with China” under Mr. Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo R. Duterte, “while at the same time being utilized to advance maritime cooperation with other countries, particularly with Japan and Southeast Asian countries,” Mr. Tarriela said. 

Mr. Marcos last month met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, in which Japan vowed to help the Philippines enforce its maritime laws in the South China Sea.

Each year, trillions of dollars of trade flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Victor “JV” G. Ejercito sought a higher budget for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) next year so it can buy more patrol vessels meant to protect the country’s marine resources.

He asked agriculture officials at a Senate hearing whether there was enough water craft to watch over marine resources in areas including the South China Sea. “I know that is very rich, that’s why it’s being fought over.”

“It is not enough. There are only 14 patrol vessels in the entire country. So that is the support we will ask for later on, acquiring more floating assets,” BFAR Assistant Director Sammy A. Malvas said mixed English and Filipino. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan