MANILA - China's new piece of legislation that allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels serves as an implied threat to other claimants of the South China Sea, a maritime law expert said Tuesday.
"Having this legislation in place is a clear, express message to other countries that they are willing to use force against those other countries' vessels," Dr. Jay Batongbacal told ANC.
"Well, you could consider that as an implied threat because we've already experienced several instances where Chinese Coast Guard vessels were intervening in the activities of Philippine vessels within Philippine waters, at least within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone."
The new law that China passed last week can further escalate tension in the contested waters, added Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
Other countries such as Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims in the vital sea lane.
He expressed concern that Filipino fishermen in the coastal towns of Zambales could be harmed, considering their previous experiences of harassment from Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal.
"Given the previous experiences, yes. It's now very clear. China has sent the message that when our fishermen basically encounter these vessels, they should be afraid that they can be shot by these Chinese vessels," he said.
Batongbacal also said the new law would hamper the completion of a so-called code of conduct being mapped out by Southeast Asian countries and Beijing, which aims to prevent potential clashes in the South China Sea.
To counter China's efforts in tightening its grip around South China Sea, he said claimants should send a clear message that it would not allow Beijing to use force to enforce its excessive claims in the contested waters.
"Any use of force should be considered as a hostile act or an act of aggression. That should be the clear message of these Southeast Asian states," Batongbacal said.
"It's going to be tantamount to an act of war in a way and I’m not exaggerating because China Coast Guard is not a civilian service, unlike the other countries."
"China Coast Guard is under the direction of central military commission of China. Therefore, it's a military service and employment of force should be considered a military action. That's how serious it could be," he added.
According to draft wording in the bill published earlier, the Chinese coast guard is allowed to use "all necessary means" to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels.
The bill specifies the circumstances under which different kind of weapons - hand-held, ship borne or airborne - can be used.
The bill allows coast guard personnel to demolish other countries' structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.
The bill also empowers the coastguard to create temporary exclusion zones "as needed" to stop other vessels and personnel from entering.
A 2016 ruling by a UN-backed court in The Hague rejected China’s sweeping claims, invalidating its history-based nine-dash line doctrine. Beijing, however, continues to ignore the landmark ruling.