[OPINION] We are a maritime nation but...

One of my biggest lessons from writing Rock Solid, a book on our country’s maritime dispute with China, is a basic fact: that the Philippines is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the longest coastlines.

Imagine this: we have more than 36,000 kilometers of coastline, much longer than those of maritime powers such as Japan, Australia and the US. The Philippines ranks 5th in the list, according to the CIA World Factbook.

This hit me as a powerful bit of information, a reality that had yet to sink into my consciousness. Why has this fact escaped me all along?

It was not pounded on my young mind when I was in grade school. Not even in high school or college. Did our elementary school have a geography subject in the ‘60s? I’m scouring the hard drive of my memory but it leads me to a blank.

I do not remember teachers in my landlocked province, cradled in a valley, talking about this staggering statistic. I was familiar with the mountains that ringed Cagayan Valley – but what did I know about the seas that surrounded our part of the country?

Looking back, our class could have taken a field trip up north to Cagayan where we could have driven to the tip of the province and seen the seas, an expanse of blue waters that melded into the Pacific Ocean. To a supple mind, this would have had an indelible impact, coupled with constant reminders in school.

Growing up, my parents and those of my classmates didn’t encourage us to swim. They somehow instilled in us a fear of bodies of water, that danger awaited us there, instead of exciting us with stories about fishes, sea mammals and the adventure that the underwater world brought.

Army first

When I was a journalist, my exposure to reporting on the military and defense establishment tilted towards land-based issues. The Army was dominant – and continues to be the largest force in the military, still addressing the enduring communist insurgency after all these decades. The Army has more combat tanks and armored fighting vehicles than the Navy’s frigates and patrol ships.

This was understandable then as the country fought the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military arm, the New People’s Army (NPA). Although the CPP has been ideologically orphaned, it wreaks havoc till today. For example, in eastern Mindanao, Major General Restituto Padilla, deputy chief of staff for plans, tells me that there are more NPA-initiated attacks than those of local terrorist groups.

But today, Padilla says, the military is “transitioning” as it prepares for external threats, specifically in the West Philippine Sea where China has been aggressive: “We’re gearing up, acquiring more ships and fighter aircraft.” This goes with a retooling of conventional mindsets that focused on land and internal threats.

In an interview with Rappler, Orlando Mercado, former defense secretary, urged the military to address evolving threats, including beefing up maritime security which is a big concern these days.

Primarily, this entails patrolling our lengthy coastline to stave off threats such as terrorism, human trafficking, smuggling, piracy, and external aggression.

Indonesia

We have something to learn from our neighbor, Indonesia, which ranks second in the Top 10 countries with the longest coastlines, next to Canada. Their leaders are ahead of ours in embedding maritime awareness into the public consciousness.

In 2014, during their elections, campaign debate took off from the platform of then presidential candidate Joko Widodo, more popularly known as Jokowi. He laid out his vision for Indonesia as a maritime power in the region. He said that he wanted to “focus on strengthening Indonesia’s maritime security and project the Indonesian navy as a respected regional maritime power in East Asia.”

When Jokowi won in July 2014, “he called upon all citizens to work together to develop Indonesia into a global maritime axis, a global civilizational hub,” the Brookings Institution wrote. “While taking the oath of office, Jokowi reiterated his call to transform Indonesia into a maritime nation and invoked the slogan of “Jalesveva Jayamah” (in the ocean we triumph).

Maritime awareness month

We don’t hear our leaders talk much about the Philippines as a maritime nation.

President Duterte’s rhetoric hardly veers away from fighting illicit drugs. Yet he doesn’t stress the fact that most of the shabu in the country comes from overseas, China specifically, and that this could be reduced with vigilant maritime security and tight control at Customs.

Our President doesn’t link drugs to maritime security, choosing to focus instead on chasing after users.

Duterte has made a token move, though, to instill a sense of belonging to a maritime country. Last year, he declared the month of September as “maritime and archipelagic nation awareness month.”

While this is a welcome step, we need institutional measures that will leave a lasting effect on the public consciousness, starting with early-learning subjects that will make the young aware of the seas around us, the riches they offer, and experience this first hand.

Our leaders, too, have to elevate the national discourse and share their vision about the Philippines and its place in the region as a maritime country. – Rappler.com