JAKARTA—Southeast Asia’s top diplomat warned on Friday of great anxiety over China’s plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the disputed South China Sea and said it could lead to naval clashes and undermine confidence in East Asia’s economy.
Beijing, however, moved to ease international alarm over the issue and said it attaches “great importance” to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a day after state media said police in its southern island province of Hainan will carry out the new plan.
“All countries have freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
New rules to come into effect on Jan. 1 will allow police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize control of foreign ships that “illegally enter” Chinese waters, the official China Daily reported on Thursday.
The report, which was also carried by other state media, further ratchets up tensions over Southeast Asia’s biggest potential military flash point, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes where several countries claim sovereignty.
President Aquino ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Thursday to verify reports about the new Chinese border rule.
If the reports are true, the Philippines will defend its interests, Mr. Aquino told a news conference in Mandaue City, Cebu province.
Mr. Aquino said the Philippines had two options: raise a diplomatic protest to Beijing or bring the dispute to an international court.
“In advancing our interest, we might accelerate and bring it [to] the appropriate international tribunal to finally settle the matter or at least start the process of settling it legally and completely,” he said.
China’s plan would be difficult to implement because it runs counter to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said.
Mr. Aquino said China had made repeated statements that it would not block freedom of navigation in the area.
Serious turn of events
Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), on Friday said China’s plan was an escalation of tensions and a “very serious turn of events.”
“It certainly has increased a level of concern and a level of great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go through,” Surin told Reuters in an interview from Thailand.
Surin, using unusually strong language, said the plan could lead to a major incident that would affect confidence in East Asia, a major engine of global economic growth.
“It is extremely important to exercise restraint and to try to approach this development with a level head and be open to listen to concerns of all parties, all sides,” he said.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea. Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia claim various parts, and so does Taiwan.
The shortest route between the Pacific and Indian oceans, the South China Sea has some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. More than half the globe’s oil tanker traffic passes through the South China Sea.
Analysts said the plan to board foreign vessels would roil global financial markets, add to global economic uncertainty, and impact global trade that would impact China as well, said Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments in Manila.
In Manila, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the Philippines should protest China’s plan.
“That’s not a good statement from China. We will just have to see what we can do to avoid this situation where they will be boarding our ships. Maybe at this point we need to file right away a protest,” Gazmin told reporters after celebration rites for the 149th birth anniversary of national hero Andres Bonifacio in Camp Aguinaldo.
Peter Paul Galvez, spokesperson for the Department of National Defense (DND), said Gazmin’s recommendation would be “the action once [the new Chinese plan] is made official” by a statement from the Chinese government itself.
Galvez said the DND was gathering more information about the new Chinese border rule.
“We are waiting for an official statement from the Chinese government,” Galvez said. “That will be something that the Department of Foreign Affairs will clarify.”
Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, chair of the House committee on national defense, said China’s plan was bound to affect the interests of countries that use the South China Sea, including the United States and European countries.
Biazon, a former military chief, urged President Aquino to convene the National Security Council “so we will have a uniform voice.”
“China’s move will definitely escalate tensions in the area,” he said.
Rep. Ben Evardone, chair of the House committee on public information, said China’s plan was “provocative.”
He said Asean, the United States, and the United Nations should deal with the new Chinese move in a “collective action.”
“Clearly China is trying to bully the Philippines and other countries in the region,” Evardone said. “The Asean, UN and the US should initiate moves to preserve peace in the area and to ensure navigational freedom in the West Philippine Sea.”
Biazon said the DFA should clarify the reports directly with Beijing, and check if the order came only from Hainan province.
He said it should boost Manila’s rejection of Beijing’s insistence on bilateral talks to solve the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
Not limited to Asean
“[T]he problem should not be limited [to] Asean. It should be tackled at the level of the UN and include the US,” Biazon said.
“[N]ot only [countries] in Asia will be affected. You also have countries [in] Europe, the Middle East, and Latin and North America [that] use the areas to be policed by China,” he said.
The DFA, he said, should be clarified about what “particular activities” will be covered by the new Chinese border rule.
“[H]ow would the order affect the international principle of innocent passage?” Biazon asked. Reports from Nikko Dizon and Christian V. Esguerra in Manila; Jhunnex Napallacan, Inquirer Visayas