BEIJING will close off access to part of the South China Sea for military drills, Chinese officials said Monday, after an international tribunal ruled against its sweeping claims in the waters.
An area off the east coast of China’s island province of Hainan will host military exercises from Tuesday to Thursday, China’s maritime administration said on its website, adding that entrance was “prohibited.”
The area of sea identified is some distance from the Paracel islands and even further from the Spratlys, with both chains claimed by Beijing and several other neighboring states.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last week ruled that there was no legal basis for Beijing’s claims to much of the sea, embodied in a “nine-dash line” that dates from 1940s maps and stretches close to other countries’ coasts.
Manila—which lodged the suit against Beijing—welcomed the decision, as China dismissed it as a “piece of waste paper.”
Despite Chinese objections, the European Union weighed in on the subject at a regional summit this weekend, with President Donald Tusk telling reporters that the grouping “will continue to speak out in support of upholding international law,” adding that it had “full confidence” in the PCA and its decisions.
China pressured countries in the Asean bloc of Southeast Asian nations not to issue a joint statement on the ruling, diplomats said.
Beijing held military drills in the South China Sea just days before the international arbitration court ruling, state media reported.
China has rapidly built reefs in the waters into artificial islands capable of military use.
In a separate message on its website, the maritime administration said last week that four out of five lighthouses built atop islands and reefs in the sea have been activated, and a fifth would be put into use soon.
In Manila, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it is still verifying reports that a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber plane flew over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, on July 15, three days after the PCA ruling.
“We have to get first an official report on the incident from the concerned agency,” said DFA spokesman Charles Jose.
In its official Twitter account, China’s State Council Information Office posted a photo of H-6K long-range nuclear-capable bomber over Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.
The photo was also posted to People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s account.
A former Interior and Local Government secretary on Monday said the Philippines must be prepared to go to war with China.
“The Constitution bars us from using war as a policy instrument. But if we are attacked, if war is brought to our doorstep, then we have to be prepared as a nation to defend ourselves,” said former DILG secretary Rafael Alunan, during the Samahang Plaridel, Kapihan sa Manila Hotel.
“We have the constitutional duty to defend ourselves in case we are attacked. And we need to have the means for that. Our procurement all these years, has not been guided by national interest. Our national defense planning was haphazard. The procurement was the cheapest, not minding the quality. This is wrong and this has to change completely,” Alunan said.
Alunan said that China is also prepared to go to war, but not against the Philippines, but against the United States and Japan, which have agreements with the country regarding its defense.
“If these end up clashing in the seas, we have to be prepared to defend here on land. If war breaks out between China and the US, we will be on the side of the United States because of the Mutual Defense Treaty. By that time we will be considered an enemy,” he added.
To avert a conflict, Alunan said that the Philippines must first be part of a process to prevent a shooting war with China, and that differences must be settled peacefully.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said he is ready for talks with China to try to solve their maritime dispute, after his government won an international arbitration case that challenged Beijing’s vast claims.
This could be the first step towards a diplomatic solution to tensions that have been building up since China expelled Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and built seven island outposts on disputed reefs.
China said the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration is “null and void” because the tribunal has no jurisdiction in this case.
Testing the waters in the wake of the ruling, Filipino fishermen tried to gain access to Scarborough Shoal, a tiny uninhabited outcrop, but were blocked by China’s coast guard.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that “if anyone challenges China’s rights and interests by taking provocative actions” based on the ruling, “China will surely make a resolute response.”
The Philippines and its ally the US are watching carefully how Beijing reacts to the ruling.
There are concerns that China may turn Scarborough Shoal into another military outpost, but so far, all signs are that Beijing wants to keep the status quo.
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