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PH twits China on use of force in disputed sea

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President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said Monday the use of force under international law was "generally prohibited," after China authorized its Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels on Chinese-claimed reefs in the event of threats – seen as a move that could escalate tension in contested waters.

PH twits China on use of force in disputed sea
TROUBLED WATERS. This graphic shows the varied claims of competing nations in the South China Sea. It coincides with reports a US aircraft carrier group sailed two days earlier into the South China Sea on a so-called "freedom of navigation" exercise, the first routine operation in the region under new President Joe Biden. AFP

Roque's statement, during an online briefing for reporters, coincided with the call by former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario on the Duterte administration to give priority to building up a credible defense posture for the country after China passed a law authorizing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels

Del Rosario, chairman of Stratbase ADR Institute, also said government should now seriously consider strengthening the country’s security alliance with so-called “freedom-loving nations” like the United States, the countries comprising the European Union, Japan, Australia and nations composing the Association of South East Asian Nations.

“In the face of this new Chinese aggression, we should prioritize what we have been saying before: build a credible defense posture for our country and strengthen our security alliance with freedom-loving nations like the US, the countries comprising the EU, Japan, Australia and our ASEAN neighbors,” Del Rosario said in a statement.

It also coincided with reports a US aircraft carrier group sailed two days earlier into the South China Sea on a so-called "freedom of navigation" exercise, the first routine operation in the region under new President Joe Biden.

But China's foreign ministry spokesman on Tuesday called the routine US exercises a "show of force and not conducive to the peace and stability of the region".

Roque told reporters in an online briefing 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.

“The use of force is generally prohibited,” he told the briefing, adding “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 by the International Arbitral Tribunal that invalidates it.

Roque reiterated that President Rodrigo 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."

Code of Conduct

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines and three other South China Sea claimants, are currently negotiating for a more binding Code of Conduct in the contested waters. With AFP

According to state media reports, China's top legislative body, the National People's Congress standing committee, passed its Coast Guard Law last Friday, that for the first time explicitly allows 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 kinds 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 Coast Guard 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.

'Sobering reminder'

Following the new US administration and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to the Philippines, Del Rosario stressed that the decision of the Chinese leadership to authorize its Coast Guard to fire on its neighbors’ vessels “is a sobering reminder to the world that China remains adamant in pressing its illegal claims in the South China Sea, now with force and probably with violence.”

“For Filipinos, this also reminds us that China’s plans to take over our waters and put our soldiers’ lives at risk will not go away despite the so-called friendly approach of the Duterte administration towards China,” he warned.

A staunch advocate of asserting the Philippines’ sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, the former top diplomat said the government should reject China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea.

“As has been shown before, we are one in rejecting China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea and we should also be one in addressing Chinese aggression in our waters,” Del Rosario said.

Beijing has moved aggressively to turn reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes, angering nations which also stake claims in the area. 

The US operation comes days after Washington said its commitment to Taiwan was "rock-solid", the first comments from the Biden administration on the democratic island.

Taiwan split from China at the end of a civil war in 1949 and exists under the constant threat of invasion by the mainland, whose leaders have vowed to one day take it.

Beijing balks at any official contacts with Taiwan and tries to keep the island diplomatically isolated.

The US remains Taiwan's most important unofficial ally, however, and is bound by an act of Congress to sell it weapons to defend itself.

President Donald Trump embraced warmer ties with the island as he feuded with China over trade, and his successor is also expected to remain tough on Beijing.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the democratic island's most important international backer and main arms supplier to China's anger. With AFP

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