Philippines pins hopes of South China Sea peace on ‘Angels of the Sea’

Philippines pins hopes of South China Sea peace on ‘Angels of the Sea’

Manila: The Philippines is resorting to a new psychological ploy in an attempt to keep the peace with Beijing in the disputed South China Sea – the reassuring and calming voice of female radio operators.

Amid rising tensions with China, the Philippine coast guard has trained a new unit of 81 female radio operators, dubbed the “Angels of the Sea”, in the hope that audio warnings will deter Chinese boat crews by evoking their wives and mothers.

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard patrol beside Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, in April.Credit:PCG/AP

The tactic is reported to have been inspired by an incident on April 27 when seven Chinese vessels backed away from the Philippine-claimed Sabina Shoal after a verbal caution from a rookie female coast guard official, Gretch Mary Acuario.

“At first I was nervous that I would stutter,” Acuario said. “I was already on board and they told me to do a radio challenge. I was nervous but I had to do it. It’s my duty.”

Steeling herself, she warned the unidentified foreign vessels approaching her ship, the BRP Cabra, that they were entering the Philippine exclusive economic zone and had to identify themselves. Acuario, who is also a lawyer, repeated the authoritative challenge for the next 20 minutes, only to be met with radio silence. Then, one by one, the ships started their engines, lifted their anchors and slipped away from the shoal.

A Chinese coast guard ship attempts to block a Philippine government vessel as the latter tries to enter Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea to relieve Philippine troops and resupply provisions.Credit:AP/File

She has since been named in the Philippine press as “the voice that scares away Chinese boats”.

Acuario said she did not think it was her female voice that forced the retreat – “it was the actual radio challenge. But it goes to show that females can be trusted to do tasks and be on the same equal footing as men.”

China is beefing up its presence in the strategic South China Sea, raising fears it is working to seize control of access to crucial global shipping routes and expand its territorial claims.

Coast guard spokesman Commodore Armando Balilo suggested the tactic had a psychological element.

“Female radio operators serve as the reassuring voice of a mother to a child, or a girlfriend or wife to a loved one facing a perceived danger,” he told the South China Morning Post.

During their graduation last week, Vice Admiral Leopoldo Laroya said: “The command recognises the evolving unique importance of having female radio operators aboard PCG vessels and shore-based units […] so as not to elevate tension.

“We want our Angels of the Sea to become the voice of peaceful and rules-based order at sea, especially in our country’s sensitive maritime frontiers,” he said according to The Washington Post.

Another coast guard official said female radio operators evoked “the reassuring voice of a mother to a child, or a girlfriend or wife to a loved one facing a perceived danger.”

The unit was also billed as part of a broader effort to empower women and reduce gender discrimination, The Post reported. But some critics said instead of empowering women, the program stereotyped them.

Describing women “as peaceful negotiators […] is also the same trope that undermines women’s role in the military,” said Jean Encinas-Franco, a politics expert at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

She didn’t think the coast guard was intentionally being sexist but had showed a “very shallow” understanding of gender equality.

The Telegraph, London; Washington Post

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