The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against China over its law authorizing its coast guard to shoot foreign vessels in areas it claims in the disputed South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said on Wednesday.
“After reflection, I fired a diplomatic protest,” Locsin said, in his Twitter post.
“While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one—given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea—is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law, which, if unchallenged, is submission to it,” Locsin added.
A Filipino security and Chinese studies expert said Wednesday this new Chinese law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels found to be infringing on their sovereignty or jurisdictions can be challenged before the international community if the use of force is found “unlawful.”
“There is a norm in international law regarding the use of excessive force so if China will use excessive force in the area then we have the right to also file a legal case,” Rommel Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), said during a virtual roundtable Wednesday.
While it is China’s “sovereign prerogative” to pass a law, he said its laws must still adhere to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
He added that the Chinese coast guard must exercise self-restraint and use force only as a last resort or for defensive purposes.
Last week, China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), passed on Jan. 23 a law authorizing the Chinese coast guard “to take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”
Former ambassador and executive director of the Center for Archipelagic and Regional Seas Law and Policy Studies Alberto Encomienda said Manila should also execute similar instructions to its coast guard.
“Reading the newspapers, the Chinese instruct (them) to fire when necessary. So, I really don’t see any problem there. Our own coast guard should have that instruction also,” he said in the same forum.
Beijing and Manila are locked in a territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which the former consistently regards as its “inherent territory.”
Among the forces manning the artificial islands there are the Chinese coast guard, who at several times had been the subject of complaints for intimidating Filipino fishermen attempting to fish in the region.
Asked what action Manila should take if the Chinese coast guard fires from an area it also claims, Banlaoi said: “We can always challenge China legally when that situation occurs. But we need to develop deterrent capability to prevent China from doing so.”
Banlaoi said Manila must match the efforts taken by Beijing and increase the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard’s presence in the area.
“The principle in international politics associated with the maritime dispute is if you cannot patrol your water, you cannot own your water,” he said in a separate radio interview.
At the same time, he suggested deepening ties with China so that they “will exercise self-restraint in using force against us.”
He added that the soon to be crafted code of conduct on the South China Sea between Beijing and the Asean is also essential to address that issue.
Senator Risa Hontiveros yesterday warned against China’s bullying tactics and called on ASEAN member-states to band together.
She noted that ASEAN countries should reach a consensus and take multilateral action to stop China’s incessant adventurism.
The Chinese game plan is to isolate and divide the countries around it so it can deal with them individually through bilateral talks, maximizing its relative advantage in resources and power against any one of its neighbors, Hontiveros said.
Earlier, the senator cautioned about China’s new law, urging the Department of Defense (DND) to immediately create a strategy for situations where the Chinese coast guard uses force in contested waters.
She said the new law also endangers Filipino fishermen and could keep them from fishing in disputed waters.
“This is the arrogance of a country that still considers itself the Middle Kingdom and an empire,” she said.
The head of a Philippine fishers’ association called the new law “a virtual declaration of war” while a security analyst said it would stoke “hatred of China” among Filipinos.
The legislation “contradicts the principle of freedom of navigation recognized by international maritime law”, said Fernando Hicap, chairman of Pamalakaya, a federation of fishers’ organizations.
Defense analyst Chester Cabalza, a fellow at the National Defense University in Beijing and the United States State Department, said the law was a “game-changer” because it turned a “white” force meant for policing, search, and rescue into a menacing “grey” arm of the military.
“The white ships of the coast guard symbolize maximum tolerance at all times to protect civilians and merchants at sea,” he said, while grey ships are “symbols of antagonism and war”.
In his statement, Hicap pointed out that this now meant the “Chinese coast guard can just shoot anyone, armed or unarmed, in territorial waters that they illegally claim.”
“This is a serious threat to Filipino fishers … in our very own territorial waters,” he added.
In its bid to strengthen its massive claim over the nearly the entire South China Sea, China has expanded its presence in the resource-rich waterways, transforming several former reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways, and surface to air missiles.
China’s new law that was passed last week is expected to trigger tensions anew in the waters where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 invalidated China’s massive claims over the SCS as it upheld the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at the West Philippine Sea.
The arbitral tribunal ruled that Beijing’s claim violated Manila’s economic and sovereign rights under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
However, China refuses to recognize a landmark arbitration award that invalidates it.
Last year, President Duterte urged claimants to follow the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Paragraph 5 of the declaration states, “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines and 3 other South China Sea claimants, are currently negotiating for a more binding Code of Conduct in the contested waters.
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