Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
China recently enacted an alarming law that authorizes its coast guard to demolish structures on features it claims, and use weapons against foreign vessels that “illegally” enter its territory. Concerns have been raised about how China may abuse the language of its domestically institutionalized and regulated law to justify the country’s aggressive actions at sea.
A 2020 US Department of Defense report showed that the size of China’s coast guard “force” is the biggest globally, almost similar to the size of a navy. Moreover, given President Xi Jinping’s direct control over the Central Military Commission, which commands the China Coast Guard (CCG), there are serious concerns on how this law may be incorporated into Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions over the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Over the years, China has utilized its paramilitary and coast guard vessels for its maritime gray zone operations and reclamation activities in the South China Sea. In 2019 alone, there were several incidents involving the swarming presence of CCG vessels, blocking passages and harassing Filipino fishermen even within Philippine territorial waters. Most of these incidents were dismissed by Beijing as within the parameters of China’s coast guard jurisdiction.
Despite the diplomatic protest filed in January by the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese Embassy in Manila downplayed the threat of the law and characterized its formulation as a “normal legislative activity.” But with the CCG law normalizing these incursions as an exercise of China’s domestic laws despite their disruptive behavior, the law’s provisions give enough leeway for China to circumvent established maritime customary norms and exert more force in terms of its expansionist agenda in contested waters. China, despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), continues to disregard the landmark ruling in the South China Sea arbitration case in 2016 that ruled in the Philippines’ favor.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has worried publicly that miscalculations and accidents are likely possible with this new law. He emphasized that with other major powers continuing to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the Philippines must engage with like-minded states to ensure peace and stability in the region. Similar to the Japanese government, for instance, the Philippine government should not downplay the potential threat of China’s new law. It must address existing gaps in patrolling the country’s territorial waters, whether in terms of capacity development through force structure modernization, regulatory amendments, institutional development, or a long-term alliance with regional counterparts to maintain the freedom of the seas. It is imperative for the Philippine government, especially the Department of National Defense, to protect the country’s national security and strategic interests by reinforcing the rule of law over the West Philippine Sea.
The government must listen to the call of the Filipino public to assert our territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea. This is clearly expressed in the survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations in July last year, in which 70 percent of our citizens expressed that sentiment. In the same survey, the great majority of our people (82 percent) agreed that we should form alliances with other democratic countries that are ready to help defend our territorial rights.
The CCG law only aggravates the already combustible situation in the region. Obviously, it is meant to legalize Chinese expansionism and aggression, but it is very much inimical not only to the livelihood of millions of fisherfolk from various countries depending on these waters, but also to the rules-based regional order governing international waters under the Unclos. This is a national and regional threat that our government cannot treat with deference and passivity.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Image Source: Reuters.