China has again sought to ease tensions with the Philippines over its controversial new coastguard law, saying it is not aimed at the Southeast Asian nation or any other country, according to Manila’s top envoy in Beijing.
“The Chinese have reassured us through their foreign ministry spokesman as well as the Chinese embassy [in Manila] that they are not targeting the Philippines or any specific country and they will not resort to force in the first instance,” Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, the Philippine ambassador to China, said in a virtual press briefing on Tuesday.
He was responding to a question about whether the Philippines should summon the Chinese ambassador over the law, which took effect this month and explicitly authorises pre-emptive strikes against foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.
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“The Chinese have tried to reassure that they will still exercise restraint,” he added.
Sta. Romana, who has been the Philippine ambassador to China since 2017, also said the language in the coastguard law passed in late January was “more moderate” than its initial draft.
“We have followed the coastguard law,” he said. “Though [the fast-tracking of the legislation] is surprising to most people, [the language] is actually more moderate than the first version when we first reported that the Chinese were considering it.”
But he said the Philippines opposed the law being applied to all waters claimed by China.
“As explained in our diplomatic note to the foreign ministry in China, we have objection to the language regarding the use of force and particularly the possible application of this law in areas we consider beyond China’s territory or within our EEZ [exclusive economic zone].”
The law has heightened concerns among China’s neighbours that it could take a more aggressive approach in maritime disputes, including in the South China Sea. Beijing’s expansive claims to the strategically important waterway overlap with those of the Philippines and other nations including Vietnam and Malaysia.
The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest after the legislation was passed, with foreign minister Teodoro Locsin calling it “a verbal threat of war to any country that defies it”.
Last week, he again warned there could be serious consequences. “So far there has been no incident,” Locsin told ABS-CBN News Channel in the Philippines. “If there is an incident, I can assure you there will be more than just a protest.”
Retired Philippine Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said earlier that Manila should raise Beijing’s coastguard law along with other Southeast Asian countries at the United Nations, a proposal that was dismissed by Locsin. Carpio was involved in the 2016 arbitration case when a tribunal in The Hague backed the Philippines and ruled that China’s claim over most of the South China Sea had no legal basis – a ruling Beijing has rejected.
The Chinese embassy in Manila earlier this month defended the coastguard law as “domestic legislation” and said Beijing would continue to seek a negotiated resolution with the Philippines over their disputes in the South China Sea.
China sought to improve ties with the Philippines soon after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in late 2016, months after the tribunal ruling, with promises of billions of dollars of investment and financial aid.
Last month, Beijing pledged to send half a million doses of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines to the Philippines when Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Manila.
Sta. Romana on Tuesday said the Philippines was “high” on China’s vaccine priority list for developing countries. “We’re trying to ensure this, through diplomatic conversations with Chinese officials, that these will be delivered as scheduled,” he said.
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