Foreigners could be held in South China Sea

Coast guard rules took effect yesterday, under which it can detain foreigners for trespassing in the disputed South China Sea, where neighbours and the G7 have accused Beijing of intimidation and coercion.

Beijing claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, brushing aside competing claims from several South-East Asian nations including the Philippines and an international ruling that its stance has no legal basis.

China deploys coast guard and other boats to patrol the waters and has turned several reefs into militarised artificial islands.

Chinese and Philippine vessels have had a series of confrontations in disputed areas.

Effective yesterday, China’s coast guard can detain foreigners “suspected of violating management of border entry and exit”, according to the new regulations published online.

Detention is allowed up to 60 days in “complicated cases”, they say.

“Foreign ships that have illegally entered China’s territorial waters and the adjacent waters may be detained.”

President Ferdinand Marcos last month called the new rules a “very worrisome” escalation.

China Coast Guard vessels have used water cannon against Philippine boats multiple times in the contested waters.

Philippine military chief General Romeo Brawner told reporters on Friday that authorities in Manila are “discussing a number of steps to be undertaken in order for us to protect our fishermen”.

Philippine fishermen were told “not to be afraid but just to go ahead with their normal activities to fish there in our Exclusive Economic Zone”, Brawner said.

The South China Sea is a vital waterway, where Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims in some parts.

Most recently, however, confrontations between China and the Philippines have raised fears of a wider conflict over the sea that could involve the United States and other allies.

Trillions of dollars in ship-borne trade passes through the South China Sea annually, and huge unexploited oil and gas deposits are believed to lie under its seabed. The sea is also important as a source of fish for growing populations.

China has defended its new coast guard rules. A foreign ministry spokesman said last month that they were intended to “better uphold order at sea”. — AFP

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