Philippines promises to protect fishermen as China’s trespass rule takes hold

A new regulation says the Chinese coast guard can arrest foreign vessels and crew in waters claimed by Beijing.
By BenarNews staff
2024.06.14
Manila
Philippines promises to protect fishermen as China’s trespass rule takes hold Activists protesting against Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea tear a caricature of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest near the Chinese consulate in Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 14, 2024.
[Aaron Favila/AP]

The Philippines reassured Filipino fishermen on Friday that it would keep them safe as China prepared to enforce a new trespassing regulation, starting this weekend, in Beijing-claimed waters in the South China Sea.

The China Coast Guard had issued an order on May 15 authorizing its personnel to detain foreign vessels and crews for up to 30 days – and as many as 60, in some cases. The regulation is due to take effect on Saturday.

“We have told [the Filipino fishermen] not to be afraid but just to go ahead with their normal activities in our exclusive economic zone,” Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., chief of the Philippine armed forces, told reporters. “Remember, [the West Philippine Sea] is ours. We have the right to exploit the resources in the area.”

Filipinos have expressed fears that the Chinese coast guard could intercept and detain Filipino boats operating in Philippine EEZ (exclusive economic zone) waters that overlap with China’s extensive territorial claims in the sea. The West Philippine Sea is how Filipinos refer to South China Sea waters that lie within the Philippines’ EEZ.

Last month, China also began enforcing an annual fishing ban in the contested waters. The four-month fishing moratorium began on May 1 and is to last until Sept. 16 in areas in the South China Sea that are “north of the 12 degrees North latitude.” That includes waters inside Manila’s EEZ.

There have been no publicized cases of Chinese authorities arresting Filipino fishermen in the contested waters but there have been many instances in recent years of China Coast Guard ships harassing Philippine boats in EEZ waters.

Brawner said the armed forces were closely coordinating with the Philippine Coast Guard, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and other agencies to respond in case Filipino fishermen are again harassed in the EEZ.

The Philippine military insists that China’s new policy “undermines the rule of law and international norms that govern maritime conduct.”

“The presence and actions of its vessels in our waters are illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive,” Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Col. Xerxes Trinidad said in a statement. “We will continue our maritime patrols in areas within the Philippines’ jurisdiction.”

Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), for its part, said Beijing’s new regulation could not be enforced within Philippine-claimed waters.

“China’s new regulations are unacceptable. China has no legal basis for enforcement within Philippine territory,” department spokeswoman Ma. Teresita Daza told BenarNews.

“A country’s domestic laws and regulations cannot be lawfully enforced in another country’s territory and jurisdiction, nor in the high seas.”

She called on China to ensure that the enforcement of its laws and regulations is “consistent with international law and not impinge on the rights and entitlement of others.”

PH-CH-SCS-trespassing-regulation 2.JPG
Chinese Coast Guard personnel are seen onboard their vessel while sailing in the South China Sea, Oct. 4, 2023. [Adrian Portugal/Reuters]

In May, a statement from the DFA said Beijing’s new regulation on trespassing was based on its flawed 2021 Coast Guard Law and had “illegally expanded” the Chinese Coast Guard’s law enforcement powers. 

China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

According to a Mandarin-language document shared by the embassy to reporters earlier, the regulation covers “administrative cases that occur in the waters under the jurisdiction” of China. 

While the document makes no direct mention of the South China Sea, China claims the waterway almost in its entirety, putting it at odds with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

On May 29, Beijing’s foreign ministry defended the new rules, saying these were established to standardize Chinese law enforcement measures “and better uphold order at sea.”

“Individuals and entities have no need for concern as long as they have not done anything illicit,” ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told a regular press conference that day. 

Meanwhile on Friday in Italy, leaders of the Group of Seven during their annual summit called out China for its “dangerous” activities in the South China Sea, in a draft statement, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We continue opposing China’s dangerous use of coast guard and maritime militia in the South China Sea and its repeated obstruction of countries’ high seas freedom of navigation,” AFP quoted an excerpt of the draft as saying.

Jason Gutierrez reported from Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem from Davao City, southern Philippines 

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news outlet.

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