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China’s ‘Un-Monroe’ doctrine

By: Antonio T. Carpio – @inquirerdotnetPhilippine Daily Inquirer / 05:07 AM February 11, 2021
Chinese naval officers have long argued that if the United States could have its Monroe doctrine in the Caribbean Sea, then China should also have its own Monroe doctrine in the South China Sea. The 1823 Monroe doctrine held that European powers could not reestablish the colonies that they had lost in South and Central America although they could retain whatever colonies they then still possessed. Last Feb. 1, 2021, China’s new coast guard law took effect, laying down China’s own maritime doctrine in the South China Sea.

While China warned powers outside the region to stay away from the South China Sea dispute, China’s new coast guard law is totally unlike the Monroe doctrine. Under the Monroe doctrine, the US never claimed any of the islands or maritime areas belonging to South and Central American states. The US never claimed maritime areas or resources beyond its territorial sea, which in 1823 was still three nautical miles from the US coastline. Beyond the three nautical mile territorial sea were already the high seas, which the US acknowledged at that time belonged to no single state but to all mankind. The US did not also bar the navies of European powers from sailing in the high seas of the Caribbean Sea.

Under its new law, China’s huge coast guard fleet is tasked to enforce China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea, beyond China’s territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and extended continental shelf (ECS) as recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Unclos. China’s claim encroaches on vast areas of the EEZs and ECSs of five Asean coastal states—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. China’s claim even encroaches on the South China Sea’s high seas, comprising about 25 percent of the South China Sea. The fish in the high seas, as well as all the other natural resources in the seabed of the high seas beyond the ECSs of coastal states, belong to all mankind. China is claiming natural resources not only from peoples of five Asean coastal states, but also from peoples of all states of the world.

The announcement of the Monroe doctrine in 1823 was welcomed by all South and Central American states since the US did not claim any of the territories or maritime areas or resources of those states. In contrast, China’s new coast guard law has been met with dread by coastal states within and outside the region. The Philippines even officially protested China’s new coast guard law as a “verbal threat of war.” China’s new law, which authorizes its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels that conduct economic activities in maritime areas belonging to other coastal states, like the EEZ of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea, is a blatant violation of the UN Charter and Unclos.

China has justified its new coast guard law by claiming that other coastal states also authorize their coast guard, in conducting law enforcement activities, to fire on foreign vessels. This is ingeniously false. Other coastal states, like the Philippines, authorize their coast guard to use force on foreign vessels that violate local laws but such use of force can be resorted to only within maritime areas under their own jurisdiction as recognized under Unclos. Besides, such use of force must adhere to the principle of necessity and proportionality to the threat or damage done. Other coastal states, including the Philippines, never authorize their coast guard to use force in maritime areas beyond their own jurisdiction. The only exception is in hot pursuits, when the crime is committed within the territory of a coastal state and the offending vessel is immediately pursued by the coast guard beyond the coastal state’s jurisdiction.

In sharp contrast, China’s new law authorizes its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels even in maritime areas outside the jurisdiction of China, that is, beyond the ECS of China as recognized under Unclos. There is a clear and present danger that the Chinese coast guard, acting under its new law, may fire on Vietnamese, Philippine, Malaysian, and Indonesian fishing vessels operating in their countries’ respective EEZs that overlap with China’s nine-dash line. These Asean coastal states must now plan how to jointly respond to such eventuality.

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