Asia-Pacific, Power & Security Winning Without Fighting: Maritime Security and Cooperation in Taiwan-Philippines Relations

May 8, 2024
By Christina Lai, Associate Research Fellow/Professor, Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica (Taiwan) | Perry World House

China, Taiwan, and the Philippines have overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (hereafter SCS), and these territorial disputes have become a flashpoint for armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. Over the last few years, China has undergone a rapid naval modernization, and Beijing’s assertive stances over these disputed waters have raised serious concerns among its neighbors and the United States.1  

Specifically, China’s gray zone operations—coordinated operations executed by military and civilian actors to assert Beijing’s maritime claims—have often increased its presence in the SCS, while imposing costs on the coast guards and naval forces of the other claimant states.2 This leads to urgent questions for Taiwan’s incoming administration: how should the Taiwanese government effectively respond to a more militarized China Coast Guard (CCG) in the Taiwan Strait and the SCS? And what policy initiatives can both Taiwan and the Philippines take to maintain the rule-based order in Asia? Taiwan’s geostrategic significance cannot be easily ignored, as it is situated in the center of the first island chain of the U.S. security network in Asia. How the Lai Ching-te administration promotes exchanges and dialogues with its maritime neighbors will shape the development of regional order. 

This article first highlights some incidents of maritime confrontations among China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Second, it proposes a two-front strategy in countering China’s gray zone operations and assertiveness in the SCS. Specifically, the Taiwanese government should actively disclose China’s provocations in official announcements and seek closer ties with the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG). Finally, it offers concrete policy recommendations for the incoming Lai administration on how to strengthen coast guard patrols and training in the Indo-Pacific region.  

Incidents of Escalation and Confrontation  

Beijing’s passage of a Coast Guard Law in 2021 has led to increasing worries among the claimant states in the SCS disputes, as it granted the CCG more power to safeguard China’s sea boundaries, islands, and reefs. It also stipulated that agencies could use lethal force, such as shipborne or airborne weapons, in waters which China claims.3 The rapid expansion of the CCG and its Maritime Militia (MM) signals more coercive and coordinated efforts to achieve China’s security interests, while avoiding explicitly armed conflicts with its counterparts. Meanwhile, Taiwan and the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding on coast guard cooperation to foster closer training and collaboration in 2021.4  

In this sense, the arming of the CCG has transformed this organization into a paramilitary body, and it no longer adheres to the initial rationale of a separation of civilian and military authority. More importantly, China’s warships and coast guard in the Taiwan Strait also pose security challenges for the United States and Taiwan. In June 2023, a Chinese vessel came within 150 yards of a US guided-missile destroyer in a challenge to the US presence near Taiwan’s waters.5 Relatedly, China’s cabbage strategy—an organized strategy adopted by the CCG and MM to impose operational costs on its counterparts and to force them to back down—also undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.6 China’s sand-dredging vessels have been extracting a significant amount of sand off the coast of Matsu, an outlying island belonging to Taiwan, that has led to serious environmental degradation.7  

Furthermore, a shooting incident between Taiwan and the Philippines occurred in 2013, when a Taiwanese fisherman was killed by gunfire from a Philippines enforcement vessel.8 To avoid further causalities and diplomatic friction in the SCS, the two sides signed the Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters on November 5, 2015.9 Starting in 2016, they set up the Technical Working Group (TWG), which meets yearly to address concerns over issues of fisheries and law enforcement.10 

In 2023, the Philippines became involved in a year-long confrontation with the CCG at the Second Thomas Shoal, accusing China of excessive use of water cannons and dangerous encounters with the PCG.11More recently, both China and the Philippines have agreed to improve communication and negotiations to manage their differences at sea. However, their efforts to lower tensions at the SCS are to be seen in the next few months. .12 In sum, these incidents show that the maritime disputes cannot be settled easily, but both Taiwan and the Philippines can actively manage the contingencies while maintaining the well-being of the fishing industry.  

Coast Guard and Navy: Transparency and Disclosure  

China’s naval modernization is a symbol to project strength in Asia, and its expansive sovereignty claims over the disputed waters also reflect its ambitions in becoming a maritime great power. A more militarized CCG and MM might trigger an arms race and a spiral of animosity among the claimant states in the SCS.13 More importantly, this raises critical questions for Taiwan and the Philippines over how to differentiate whether a ship is a naval or CCG vessel. There is no simple solution to the blurring distinction between the naval and non-military establishments, and the CCG has already aligned with the PLA organizational structure. Instead, this article highlights another aspect that has been overlooked: the Taiwanese government can actively seek joint coast guard training exercises and patrol missions with the Philippines. Coast Guards are a better vehicle than naval vessels for regional cooperation and de-escalating tensions over maritime disputes. 

More specifically, the coast guards of both countries can work closely with each other while maintaining a clear distinction between the military and civilian establishments. The TWG serves as a good start for more substantive and regularized coordination. For example, both sides can establish a clear standard for law enforcement and specify the non-use of lethal weapons at sea. The governments of Taiwan and the Philippines should avoid an arms race in their defense spending, as equipping patrol vessels with anti-ship or lethal force missiles would only serve to add to the spiral of hostility while neglecting the mission of the coast guard.  

In addition, the Philippines government has released videos and photographs of China’s provocations near the Second Thomas Shoal throughout 2023. This is both an effective and credible way to counter China’ assertive claims, while gaining public and regional support. In this regard, the Taiwanese government can learn from the Philippine experience in countering China’s gray zone operations.14 Specifically, the Taiwan Coast Guard could ensure due process in patrolling, including making surveillance videos and radio records during investigations or confrontations, and make them accessible to the public, the media, and the international community. The incoming Lai administration can pursue more transparent ways in disclosing China’s exploitation of natural resources, such as illegal fishing and excessive sand dredging in the Taiwan Strait.  

Policy Implications 

Beijing’s gray zone operations—as conducted by the assertive MM and militarized CCG—pose serious challenges to China’s neighbors. However, its constant presence also leads to great opportunities in strengthening Taiwan-Philippines relations. When Lai Ching-te won the 2024 Taiwan presidential election, Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. expressed his congratulations. He indicated: “the Philippines look forward to close collaboration and strengthening mutual interests.”15 Taiwan should use its coast guard MoU as a model to build substantive relations with the Philippines government as well. 

It's the right time to address China’s challenge and see if a routinized and joint patrol between the Taiwan and Philippines coast guards prove equally effective in managing the SCS maritime disputes. The coast guards of Taiwan and the Philippines can uphold their core mission of policing and patrolling, and the incoming Lai administration should expedite political negotiations on sharing and managing fishing resources. The safety of the fleets and maritime stability in the SCS are top concerns for the Taiwan and the Philippines coast guards.