"We urge the two sides to thresh out differences through dialogue and consultation."
In January, China's National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a new law allowing its Coast Guard to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”
The new law would also allow personnel of the Chinese Coast Guard to “demolish” other countries’ structures built on China-claimed reefs and to board and inspect vessels in waters claimed by China.
At first, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted that the passage of the Chinese law was "none of our business."
But later, "upon reflection," he said he had filed a diplomatic protest since he considered the new law as tantamount to “a verbal threat of war to any country that defies it."
The new Chinese Coast Guard law attracted the attention of lawmakers as well.
Sen. Richard Gordon described it as a “creeping threat that can escalate any time.” Sen. Francis Tolentino noted that the new law empowers the Chinese Coast Guard to “set up temporary exclusion zones...These are lockdown zones needed to stop other vessels and personnel from entering...I worry for our fishermen from Zambales, Cavite, Batangas, Mindoro, and the rest of the eastern seaboard who will venture out into that coast.”
In response to concerns over the possible impact of the new law, the Chinese Embassy in Manila slammed “false accusations” against it, insisting it conforms to international conventions and is not specifically targeted at any particular country.
The embassy said the crafting of the law, which would allow China’s coast guard to fire at foreign vessels in Chinese claimed reefs, is a “normal domestic legislative activity” of the Chinese government.
“The content of the law conforms to international conventions and the practices of the international community. Enacting such a coast guard law is not unique to China, but a sovereign right to all,” it said.
The embassy emphasized that China has always been “committed” to “managing differences with countries including the Philippines through dialogue and consultations and upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
The embassy also decried what it called a “fabricated and spread relentlessly fake news” against the Chinese Coast Guard.
“Some forces in the Philippines, either for their own political interests or out of prejudice toward China, have not only misinterpreted China’s normal legislation, but also fabricated and spread relentlessly fake news such as ‘China Coast Guard harassing Filipino fishermen,’ despite repeated denials from authorities concerned, including the Philippine armed forces, of such an improbable case,” it said.
But there's the rub: while the new Chinese law in on its face "normal domestic legislative activity" that other littoral countries also enact to protect their shores, there's a huge difference because China is involved in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea with neighboring countries, including ours.
The apprehension that the Chinese Coast Guard could implement the new law in parts of the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines and five other countries is therefore not totally unfounded.
Having said this, we welcome Beijing's assurances that it is not targeting the Philippines when it adopted the controversial law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels.
Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana clarified that while Manila objected to the law's language on the use of force and its possible application in areas that are beyond China’s territory, "the Chinese have reassured us through their spokesman, the foreign ministry spokesman as well as the Chinese Embassy that...they are not targeting the Philippines or any specific country. The Chinese have tried to reassure that they will still exercise restraint. This is what we are calling for, that all claimant-countries resort to diplomacy and avoid the use of force."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had earlier expressed concern that “accidents” might happen between patrolling ships of claimants in disputed areas of the South China Sea as a result of China’s new law.
He assured Filipino fishermen that they would remain safe and encouraged them to fish in the designated common fishing grounds in the South China Sea.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines, meanwhile, has indicated that it will remain resolute in protecting the country’s maritime domain.
AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said: “We will pursue our constitutional mandate and consistently assert our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The protection of our territory and upholding the interest [of] our people is our primary interest.”.
Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, AFP chief of staff, had also ordered the deployment of more Navy ships to the West Philippine Sea to protect Filipino fishermen venturing into the common fishing grounds in disputed areas of the South China Sea. “I just want to make clear that our Navy presence there (West Philippine Sea) is not [aimed at waging] war against China but to secure our own people,” he said.
While China is well within its right to come up with a law that expressly allows its Coast Guard to protect its territory, Filipinos are understandably concerned that the new legislation could prevent fishermen from venturing out to their traditional fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea that we consider as part of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but which China also claims as part of its own territory under its so-called "nine-dash line".
As we have said before, the South China Sea territorial and maritime dispute between China and the Philippines should not be allowed to get out of hand and upset over-all bilateral ties that cover trade, investments, cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
Instead, we urge the two sides to thresh out differences through dialogue and consultation and to seek agreement on contentious issues on the basis of mutual respect and adherence to international law.