THE top diplomat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations warned over the weekend that China’s new policy of boarding and searching ships entering disputed territories in the region could spark naval clashes.
“It certainly has increased the level of concern and great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go through,” said Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan.
The South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, includes crucial international shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade is carried.
Wu Shicun, director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan Province, said Chinese ships would be allowed to search and repel foreign ships only if they were engaged in illegal activities and only if the ships were within the 12-nautical-mile zone surrounding islands that China claims.
But Wu did not define what would constitute “illegal activities.”
The new law, passed by the legislature of Hainan province, came less than a month after Xi Jinping was named China’s new leader.
Sources said the Hainan province’s new policy reinforces fears that Xi would be adopting a more aggressive stance over conflicting maritime claims in the region.
Surin said the new policy on the disputed territories, considered to be the region’s biggest potential military flashpoint, could affect the business climate in Asia.
President Benigno Aquino III said if reports on the new policy are true, the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest.
He said it could also speed up the filing of a formal claim before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
The United States on Saturday said that it does not take sides in the competing claims in the West Philippine even as it urged claimant countries to “avoid provocative unilateral actions.”
US embassy spokeswoman Bettina Malone said Washington’s interest remained focused on the freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce in the West Philippine Sea.
“All concerned parties should avoid provocative unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution of differences,” Malone said.
“We believe all parties should pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention,” she added.
Mr. Aquino said the planned action by China is a gross violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it would also violate the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which Asean hopes to transform into a legally binding Code of Conduct.
On Friday, Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said it was their “right” to impose a coastal border defense regulation.
“Every country has the right to carry out maritime management according to law,” Hong said.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea. The Huangyan island is China’s inherent territory and there is no sovereignty dispute over it,” Hong added.
On Sunday, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said China was just testing the waters with the announcement of its policy, and said it would not actually board vessels passing through disputed waters because of the United States would stop it from doing so.
Interviewed over radio dzBB, Santiago also described the current tension in the region as “a fight between two giants” – China and the United States.
Joyce Pangco Panares
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