A Philippine lawmaker has tabled a bill that would outlaw maritime and airspace encroachments by foreign vessels, in a bid to push back against a pattern of frequent incursions of Chinese ships into the country’s waters.
If House Bill 2465, which was submitted by Representative Rufus B. Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro in the southern Philippines, is passed foreign vessels transiting Philippine waters would be restricted to designated sea lanes and air routes. The bill also imposes a jail term or a fine of $1.2 million or both on the ship master or plane captain or operator for violation of the proposed law.
“No Chinese or any vessel should be allowed in our waters without our approval unless for innocent passage in the designated archipelagic sea lanes,” Rodriguez said in a statement, according to a local media report. He added, “The vessels or planes shall not deviate more than 25 nautical miles from the designated passage routes. They shall not do any activity other than transiting expeditiously.” Rodriguez also said that any transiting ships or planes would be “prohibited from conducting any oceanography or hydrographic survey or research activity unless permitted by the Philippine government.”
The Philippine Archipelagic Sea Lanes Act, as it is also known, is a clear response to a long pattern of Chinese incursions into the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Under its contentious “nine-dash line” maritime claim, the Chinese government claims a large swathe of what Manila terms the West Philippine Sea, adjacent to the island of Palawan, and Chinese vessels have encroached repeatedly into the country’s EEZ. While these are often nominally fishing fleets, the confirmed presence of large numbers of maritime militia vessels suggests that they are designed to test Philippine resilience and assert Beijing’s maritime and territorial claims.
Even as Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has spoken about the economic benefits of trade with China, Manila has made a steady stream of official protests about Chinese actions in and around its EEZ. In the first 70 days of Marcos Jr.’s term, the Philippines lodged 52 protests against Beijing’s “incursions” and “illegal presence” in Philippine regions of the South China Sea, a sign both of the frequency of Chinese incursions and the new administration’s desire to take a strong stand on maritime disputes. This came after the lodging of 388 protests during the six-year term of Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
It is unclear whether the Philippine Archipelagic Sea Lanes Act will pass the House, let alone the Senate, where a similar bill died during the last term of the Philippine Congress. Even then, the unavoidable question facing the law is that of enforcement. In 2016, when an arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favor, claiming that the Chinese claims had no standing under international law, the Chinese government simply refused to accept its jurisdiction. In a similar vein, it is hard to imagine the Philippine navy or coast guard detaining and prosecuting Chinese ship crews for breaking Philippine laws.
As such, the diplomatic ramifications of enforcing (or failing to enforce) such a law would probably outweigh the deterrent effect. That’s not to say that the law in general is not a useful tool for advancing and defending the Philippine claims in the South China Sea. To a certain extent, international opinion matters, and in the face of China’s overwhelming preponderance of power, wielding the “right” of law over the might of Chinese naval and maritime power stands the best chance of rallying the world to Manila’s side.