The Philippines has protested against a new Chinese law that authorises its ships to fire on foreign vessels and destroy property on islands it claims as its own, Manila’s top diplomat said on Wednesday.
Beijing’s Coast Guard Law, passed last week, empowers Chinese warships to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons” against anyone infringing on its “sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”.
The law also authorises 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.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr tweeted that given the new law applies to most if not all of the South China Sea, it is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies it.
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 President Rodrigo Duterte seeking closer ties 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 for decades.
Tensions flared in recent years after China transformed 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.
US naval forces have challenged China’s territorial claims over virtually the entire sea and China has warned Washington to stay away from what it says is a purely Asian dispute.
On Saturday, a US Navy aircraft carrier sailed into the South China Sea “to conduct routine operations, promote freedom of the seas and reassure America’s allies”.