'Clear message' needed on China law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign ships — expert

Bella Perez-Rubio - Philstar.com
'Clear message' needed on China law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign ships � expert
File photo shows China Coast Guard ship.
The STAR / File

MANILA, Philippines — A maritime expert on Tuesday said the Philippines and other countries with claims in the South China Sea should issue a strong response to a controversial new Chinese law that allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

"Any use of force should be considered as a hostile act or an act of aggression. That should be the clear message of Southeast Asian states," lawyer Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs, told ANC's "Matters of Fact".

He added that such aggression from Beijing would be "tantamount to an act of war," noting that unlike other countries, the China Coast Guard is not a civilian service and falls directly under its military.

"Therefore, it's a military service and employment of force should be considered a military action."

Draft wording of China's Coast Guard Law empowers it to use "all necessary means" to counteract threats from foreign vessels, per a report from Reuters. The law, which was passed last week and takes effect on February 1, also allows members of the Chinese coast guard to destroy structures built by foreign countries on reefs claimed by Beijing and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.

"The problem is, even if this is normal for coast guards around the world, China does not limit the application of this law to its own waters, because it is making excessive claims to other countries' waters," Batongbacal explained.

"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."

'Filipino fishermen can be shot'

For the Philippines, Batongbacal said the law could be considered as an "implied threat," citing "several instances where Chinese Coast Guard vessels were intervening in the activities of Philippine vessels within Philippine waters."

"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 also said.

Beijing has long refused to acknowledge an arbitral ruling that junks its claims over the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Monday slammed the development, saying: "The next time na gusto [ng China] ilubog ang fishing vessel natin, o iwan ang mangingisda natin sa dagat, hindi lang sila sasagasaan, babarilin pa? (The next time China wants to sink our fishing vessels or leave our fishermen in the sea, they will not just run them over, they will shoot them too?)" 

READ: A year after Recto Bank incident, no change in policy in West Philippine Sea — Diokno | Chinese ship that sank GemVer possibly part of maritime militia — report

"We must not allow China to shake our hand on vaccine procurement, but stab us in the back on the West Philippine Sea." 

But will the Duterte administration take action?

Malacañang on Tuesday, however, doused any hope that it might take action or offer a strong statement in response to the law passed by China.

"No diplomatic moves will be made in response to this"," presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in Filipino during a virtual briefing. "It's their law."

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. similarly said on Monday that the law, which might be enforced in waters claimed and rightfully awarded to the Philippines, is "none of our business."

"[I]t is China's business what laws it passes; so please a little self-restraint," he said on Twitter, in response to a story which quoted Hontiveros as saying that the law was a "very negative development."

READ: Locsin lauds Manila-Beijing ties on Chinese foreign minister’s third official visit to Philippines  

Sen. Francis Pangilinan on Sunday said the Philippines should not be intimidated by China's recent move. "We reject and do not recognize foreign laws that encroach on our territorial seas and exclusive economic zone," he said.

"Indonesia and Vietnam refuse to be intimidated. I adamantly refuse to believe that they are braver than we are, and I firmly believe that ours is not a nation of cowards." 

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