The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Philippines hopes the voices of this all-female coast guard unit will keep Chinese ships away

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a history of making disparaging remarks about women. (Aaron Favila/AP)

With tensions rising in the South China Sea, the Philippines is turning to an unusual resource to manage maritime conflict: the supposedly soothing voices of female radio operators.

The Philippine coast guard held a graduation ceremony on Friday for a new unit of 81 female radio operators dubbed the “Angels of the Sea,” who will be tasked with carefully confronting the rising number of Chinese ships that have strayed into the exclusive economic zones of China’s neighbors in what analysts see as an attempt by Beijing to assert legally unrecognized claims to those waters.

“The command recognizes the evolving unique importance of having female radio operators aboard PCG vessels and shore-based units … so as not to elevate tension,” Vice Adm. Leopoldo Laroya said during the ceremony. “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.”

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 is being billed as part of a broader effort to empower women and reduce gender discrimination. But some critics say that instead of empowering women, the program stereotypes them.

“Essentializing 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 added that she didn’t think the coast guard was intentionally being sexist but said it has showed a “very shallow” understanding of gender equality.

The Angels initiative was inspired by the successful deployment of several female Filipino radio operators, the South China Morning Post reported.

On April 27, an operator on a coast guard ship near the Sabina Shoal — an atoll in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and China — challenged seven Chinese ships.

“Unidentified foreign vessel at Sabina Shoal: This is the Philippine coast guard. You are within the Philippine exclusive economic zone,” coast guard member Gretch Mary Acuario told the Chinese ships in a prerecorded message. “You are requested to provide the following: name of vessel, intention, last and next port of call.”

Instead of replying, the ships left the area — an outcome that drew praise from President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte’s administration is taking a harder line toward Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Unlike his predecessor, the late Benigno Aquino III, Duterte had largely shied away from confronting Beijing. But in recent months, Manila has significantly boosted its sea patrols.

Skeptics questioned whether the idea would actually reduce conflicts in the sea, through which roughly one-third of the world’s international shipping passes each year.

In an interview with local media in May, Acuario said she believed it made no difference whether it was a woman or a man who confronted the Chinese vessels.

Rear Adm. Ronnie Gil Gavan, the man behind the Angels initiative, told the South China Morning Post that female radio operators would evoke “the authority of wives or mothers that pervades the Asian culture.”

But many Asian societies remain patriarchal, women rights activists in the region say. And Arlene Brosas, a lawmaker from the Gabriela Women’s Party, said the Angels operation was “a futile attempt to mask the sexist and misogynistic nature of the Duterte government” and one that trivialized the situation in the South China Sea.

The Philippines, which has had two female presidents, regularly ranks high for gender equality. But Duterte has a history of making disparaging remarks about women and joking about rape.

Manila has boosted female involvement in its military in recent years to comply with a 2000 United Nations Security Council resolution that called on countries to make women equal partners in peace and security operations.

Yet, the Angels of the Sea initiative is not the first time the Philippines has missed the mark. Officials were eager to highlight the deployment of female troops in a 2017 conflict against Islamist militants, but the decision was motivated, at least in part, by a belief that the militants would be less likely to kill them, Encinas-Franco said.

“So in essence, they made the women into shields.”

Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.