ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Philippines Protests China’s New Coast Guard Law as ‘Verbal Threat of War’

A new Chinese law authorizes the country’s coast guard to fire on foreign vessels and destroy other countries’ structures on islands it claims.

Philippines Protests China’s New Coast Guard Law as ‘Verbal Threat of War’

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. bump their elbows during a meeting in Manila, Philippines, Saturday, January 16, 2021.

Credit: Francis Malasig/Pool Photo via AP

The Philippines has protested a new Chinese law that authorizes its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels and destroy other countries’ structures on islands it claims, Manila’s top diplomat said Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a tweet that the new Chinese law “is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies” it. Failure to challenge the law “is submission to it,” he 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,” Locsin said.

In an earlier tweet, on January 25, Locsin said in reference to the law, “It’s none of our business; it is China’s business what laws it passes; so please a little self-restraint.” In updating his stance “after reflection” and noting he had “fired a diplomatic protest” over the matter, Locsin remarked, “Note the aching precision of that statement. I keep astonishing myself. Like a watchmaker.”

China’s Coast Guard Law, which was passed on Friday, empowers the force 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 law also authorizes the coast guard to demolish other countries’ structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China and to seize or order foreign vessels illegally entering China’s territorial waters to leave. 

The Chinese law raises the stakes and the possibility of clashes with regional maritime rivals.

The Philippine protest is the latest strongly worded public criticism by Manila of China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters, despite cozier ties nurtured by President Rodrigo Duterte with Beijing. Last July, Locsin warned China of “the severest response” if military exercises being staged by China’s People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea spilled over into Philippine territory.

China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, have been locked in territorial rivalries in the South China Sea in tense decades-long standoffs. Indonesian forces also have had confrontations with the Chinese coast guard and fishing flotillas in what Indonesia claims as its exclusive economic zone near the South China Sea.

The United States has no claims in the strategic waterway, but its naval forces have challenged China’s territorial claims over virtually the entire sea. China has warned the U.S. to stay away from what it says is a purely Asian dispute but Washington has said it would continue to deploy its warships to the disputed region.

A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, sailed into the South China Sea on Saturday to conduct “routine operations,” promote freedom of the seas and reassure America’s allies, Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo said in a statement. 

Tensions flared in recent years after China transformed seven disputed reefs in the Spratlys, the most hotly contested region in the South China Sea, into missile-protected island bases, including three with military-grade runways. China and Southeast Asian nations have been negotiating a regional “code of conduct” to discourage aggression in the disputed waters but the talks have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

China’s coast guard is also active in the vicinity of uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.

By Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines for the Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.