Philippines protests China green light for its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 27 2021 06:04 PM | Updated as of Jan 27 2021 08:26 PM

A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine ship engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on March 29, 2014. The Philippine ship slipped past the Chinese blockade to reach the shoal where a grounded ship, BRP Sierra Madre, is stationed. Jay Directo, AFP/File​

MANILA — The Philippines is opposing a new Chinese law that lets its coast guard fire on foreign vessels in a move that could escalate tension in such contested waters as the South China Sea, its top diplomat said Wednesday.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said that following a "reflection", "I fired a diplomatic protest." 

Locsin on Jan. 25 said on Twitter that the Chinese coast guard law is "none of our business."

"It is China's business what laws it passes; so please a little self-restraint," he said even as President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said on the same day that the use of force under international law is "generally prohibited" when asked to comment on the new Chinese law.

In a fresh tweet on Wednesday, Locsin said, "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."

Roque had said that China's laws must follow obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which only allows the use of force in "well-defined exceptions" like self-defense and authorization from the UN Security Council. 

"Iyong paggamit ng dahas ay generally prohibited," said Roque, a lawyer who taught international law in the University of the Philippines.

(The use of force is generally prohibited.)

"Sana po, walang gagawin ang kahit anong bansa dito sa usaping West Philippine Sea na magpapalala pa po sa sitwasyon," he added, using the name of Manila's claimed portion of the South China Sea.

(We hope that no country will do anything in the West Philippine Sea that would worsen the situation.)

Beijing claims almost the entire resource-rich waterway and refuses to recognize a landmark arbitration award that invalidates it.

Roque reiterated that Duterte has been urging 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."

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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. 

According to state media reports, China's top legislative body, the National People's Congress standing committee, passed its Coast Guard Law last Friday, explicitly allowing for the first time its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

Aside from the South China Sea, China also has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea.

Beijing previously sent its coast guard to chase away fishing vessels from other countries, sometimes resulting in the sinking of these vessels.

According to draft wording in the bill published earlier, the 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.

Responding to concerns, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the law is in line with international practices.

The first article of the bill explains that the law is needed to safeguard China's sovereignty, security and maritime rights.

- With reports from Willard Cheng and Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News, and from Reuters

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