Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is worried that China’s new law allowing its coast guard to fire at foreign ships it deems as intruders may cause an open conflict in the South China Sea.
“I’m very concerned about this law because it might cause some miscalculations and accidents there especially that they are now allowed to fire at foreign vessels,” Lorenzana said in a television interview over CNN Philippines.
“It might cause open conflict,” he noted.
This, as Lorenzana disclosed that there are some countries that have shown interest to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea to promote freedom of navigation in the area, among them are the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and India.
“We are going to continue dialoguing with these countries and find ways on how to move forward. As I said, mahirap na magkaroon ng aksidente dyan (it will be difficult if an accident occurs there),” Lorenzana said.
Passed on January 22, 2021, the new law allows Chinese Coast Guard personnel to “take all necessary measures,” including the use of weapons, against foreign ships that intrude its sovereignty.
But Lorenzana stressed that China cannot impose its laws on Philippine ships that are operating in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is part of the vast South China Sea.
Two weeks ago, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had filed a diplomatic protest against the Chinese law as he described it as a “verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law.”
Because of the law, some Filipino fishermen reportedly started to avoid going into traditional fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea such as in Scarborough Shoal, Recto (Reed) Bank, and Mischief Reef.
But Lorenzana assured the fishermen that the military and the Philippine Coast Guard will continue to patrol the West Philippine Sea to protect the country’s interests in the hotly-contested waters.
“The law does not concern them because foreign vessels, I understand, will be armed vessel by other countries. Fishermen are not armed and I advise them to continue fishing in their traditional fishing ground,” he said.
China is claiming a major portion of South China Sea, including parts of the West Philippine Sea despite the landmark ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 which favored the Philippines’ claims and invalidated the legality of Beijing’s nine-dash line reasoning.
Other countries with overlapping claims in the South China Sea are the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.