This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against the Chinese government after Beijing passed a new law giving its coast guard authority to fire upon foreign vessels in the contested South China Sea, Manila’s top diplomat said Wednesday.
The move by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. reversed a stand that he took on Monday when he said it was “none of our business” what laws China passes.
“After reflection I filed a diplomatic protest,” Locsin said in comments posted via Twitter. “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; which, if unchallenged, is submission to it.”
The law, which the National People’s Congress approved on Jan. 22 and that is scheduled to take effect on Feb. 1, placed the China Coast Guard under military command.
It also empowered the 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 next day, the U.S. Navy announced that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group had entered the South China Sea “to conduct routine operations” including maritime strike exercises and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.
Locsin did not say what prompted his change of heart. But it came a day after local broadcast network GMA Television reported that China Coast Guard ships had recently blocked Filipino fishermen from Pag-asa Island as they tried to enter fishing grounds in the disputed area.
Pag-asa, known internationally as Thitu Island, is one of about nine islands and atolls occupied by Manila in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea.
The Philippine military has been refurbishing the island’s port and repairing the runway of its small airstrip.
On Monday, Locsin had said it was China’s business what laws it wanted passed as he called on critics of Beijing to have a little “self-restraint.”
‘China should stop its bullying tactics’
On Wednesday, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who is among public figures in the Philippines who have criticized Beijing, called on President Rodrigo Duterte to “denounce China’s bullying immediately.”
“After China passed its Coast Guard Law, our own fisher folk are asking the administration to condemn this,” she said in a statement. “Let us stand up to China, and for once back our fishermen.”
“This is the arrogance of a country that still considers itself the Middle Kingdom and an empire. This is an unacceptable encounter,” the senator from the opposition said.
Hontiveros had previously warned about the new Chinese measures and urged the country’s defense establishment to immediately create a strategy to deal with the possibility of the Chinese coast guard using force to thwart Filipino fishermen in contested waters.
“The law will be passed in February. The next thing we know, Chinese coast guards might not only block, but also shoot at our own boats,” she said.
She also called on fellow member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “to reach a consensus and to take multilateral action to stop China’s incessant adventurism.”
Beijing’s plan, she noted, appeared to be to isolate and divide countries in an effort to deal with them individually through bilateral talks rather than multilateral negotiations.
“China should stop its bullying tactics. ASEAN member-states should band together and show China that we will not be bullied into deference,” she said.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone as well.
China’s efforts go against an international arbitral tribunal ruling in July 2016 that went in favor of the Philippines and dismissed Beijing’s expansive claims to the potentially mineral-rich sea region.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office just days before the ruling, had not sought to enforce it and instead appeased China in exchange for what he said were much-needed investments.
Last September, Duterte shifted gears in declaring that the ruling was “beyond compromise.”
China has promised its neighbors that like them, it wanted to finish a code of conduct in the maritime region, but Beijing has continued to expand territories it occupies in the South China Sea.
ASEAN members and China have been negotiating for a code to manage tensions in the South China Sea, but Beijing’s lack of enthusiasm for a multilateral solution to the disputes has hindered these talks.
On Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to requests for comment regarding Locsin’s latest statement.
Speaking in Vietnam on Jan. 27, at the 13th Communist Party Congress, army chief deputy minister of defense and Senior Lieutenant General Phan Van Giang meanwhile said that Vietnam’s military has responded in a “firm and timely” manner to challenges to its sovereignty in areas it claims in the South China Sea, called the East Sea by Vietnam.