BEIJING—China has granted its border patrol police the right to board and expel foreign ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea, including parts known as West Philippine Sea, state media reported on Thursday.
The rules, which come into effect on January 1, will allow police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize control of foreign ships that “illegally enter” Chinese waters and order them to change course or stop sailing,” the official China Daily reported.
The Philippines, one of the obvious targets of the new rules, could not confirm the reports on Thursday.
Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), said the agency was gathering more information on the new Chinese move.
“If it is true, it will pose a concern to the Philippines and the international community,” Hernandez said.
In Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said: “Instead of asking the Philippine government to comment on a position taken by a local Chinese government official, why doesn’t the press ask the Chinese Embassy here and confirm if that is also the position they are adopting?”
But the Philippine military found the new Chinese rule “too much.”
“That cannot be. That’s a violation of the international passage (rights),” Marine Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban, commander of military forces in the western Philippines (Wescom), which covers the West Philippine Sea, said in a phone interview with defense reporters at Camp Aguinaldo.
“That’s too much. While we are exerting all peaceful means (to resolve the territorial dispute), that is what they (are doing),” Sabban said.
President Aquino, however, does not see the territorial dispute with China as leading to war.
Speaking to an audience of grade school students at The Learning Tree Child Growth Center in Sikatuna Village in Quezon City on Tuesday, Aquino said the Philippines would protect its exclusive economic zone.
But that did not mean the country would go to the extent of fighting a war with China, he said.
Noting that China was a nuclear power, Aquino said the Philippines would fight for its territory in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Asked about China’s position that the Philippines was misinterpreting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provision on the exclusive economic zone, Aquino said: “Well, obviously there will be a difference of opinion owing to the fact that we are on different sides of defense with their country, in reference to this particular issue. But we’ve always maintained that our approach to the dispute in the West Philippine Sea is a rules-based approach.”
China’s assertion of sovereignty over the stretch of water off its south coast and to the east of mainland Southeast Asia has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to parts of the sea.
Hainan, which likes to style itself as China’s answer to Hawaii or Bali with its resorts and beaches, is the province responsible for administering the country’s extensive claims to the myriad islets and atolls in the sea.
China Daily said the government would also send new maritime surveillance ships to join the fleet responsible for patrolling the sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas and straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.
The new rules come after Beijing issued new passports containing a map showing its claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea, infuriating its neighbors.
Vietnam and the Philippines refuse to stamp the documents, which Indonesia on Thursday called “counterproductive.”
Both Vietnam and the Philippines have protested the map, with the Philippines calling it an “excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law.”
The state-run Global Times reported on Thursday that Hainan passed new regulations this week allowing local police “to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province’s sea areas.”
Activities defined as illegal by the new regulation include “illegally halting or dropping anchor… and carrying out publicity campaigns that endanger China’s national security,” the official Xinhua news agency said.
Hainan province administers around 2 million square kilometers of sea waters, including the Spratly islands, which are also claimed in whole or in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The vast territory that China claims also includes Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a resource-rich part of the sea within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, where Chinese and Philippine ships faced off with each other from early April to mid-June, both sides asserting sovereignty over the area.
Asked about the reports on Thursday, Beijing’s foreign ministry press officer Hong Lei said only: “It is the legitimate right of the sovereign state to carry out maritime management.”
The Global Times quoted Li Zhaojie, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, as saying the regulation could lead to stricter enforcement of Beijing’s right to expel ships entering its territory illegally.
Li said these rights were granted by a United Nations convention.
“In the past, when foreign ships broke the UN convention, the best thing our patrol could do was chase them out of China’s waters. The new regulation will change that, and give the patrol force the legal means to actually do its job.”
The Philippine Coast Guard, which on Sunday said it was ready to deploy a ship to Panatag to resume the face-off with China, had no comment on Thursday’s report on the new Chinese rule.
Pull out ships
But Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines was still asking China to withdraw three ships from Panatag Shoal almost six months after it promised to pull out.
Del Rosario said that while the Philippines withdrew its own ships from Panatag on June 4, as agreed by both countries, China’s three government ships remained in the area.
“They have three ships in the vicinity right now. They have never really left. We are continuing to ask them to honor our sovereignty and . . . we are asking them to pull out their ships as agreed upon,” he said.
The Philippines and Vietnam have accused China of ramping tensions in the area, with the map of China on new passports showing the disputed parts of the sea as the latest provocative move by Beijing.
The Philippines will implement next week a new procedure for processing visa applications for Chinese travelers carrying the new passport with the controversial map.
The Philippines is not stamping the new Chinese passports. But it is stamping visas for Chinese travelers on a separate form.
India has started stamping its own map onto visas for Chinese visitors as the passports also show the disputed border areas of Arunachai Prades and Aksai Chin as Chinese territory.
Beijing has attempted to play down the diplomatic fallout from the passports, with the foreign ministry arguing the map was “not made to target any specific country.”
But Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on Thursday said the new Chinese passports were “counterproductive.”
Although it is not a claimant to territory in the West Philippine Sea, Indonesia has mediated in the dispute between China and Southeast Asian nations with claims to parts of the sea.
Indonesia is also a major supplier of commodities to China, which is increasingly exploring mines and constructing smelters in Indonesia to fuel its economy.
Natalegawa, who has hopped between claimant nations this year over the issue, warned that the passports would worsen the already tense dispute and said Jakarta would convey its position to Beijing.
“These actions are counterproductive and will not help settle the disputes,” he said in an interview with the Jakarta Post daily.
“We perceive the Chinese move as disingenuous, like testing the waters, to see its neighbors’ reactions,” he said.
Natalegawa said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should concentrate on finalizing a code of conduct as a first step to ease tensions over the territorial disputes.
“I hope that we, Asean and China, can focus on dialogue,” he said.—Reports from Nikko Dizon, Tarra Quismundo, Michael Lim Ubac, Jerry Esplanada, AFP and Reuters