China has sparked a war of words with the Philippines after making threats to protect its borders in the South China Sea with force.

Beijing has ordered its coast guard to attack foreign ships inside its arbitrary ‘nine-dash line’ borders, which stretch out into the sea.

Last month it passed the Coast Guard Law, also known as the “open fire” law, which gives the country’s sea forces a free hand to open fire on any foreign vessel deemed a threat to national sovereignty.

It states that the coastguard can “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations or individuals at sea”.

But the move has angered the Philippines, with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr declaring its forces would retaliate if any of the its vessels are targeted.

“So far there has been no incident. If there is an incident, I can assure you there will be more than just a protest,” Mr Locsin told local media.

The threat comes after he issued a diplomatic protest against what he dubbed a “verbal threat of war”.

“Initially I said, you make a law, a domestic law that’s nobody’s business, however, on reflection, you realise that this law can be applied to areas that they claim are theirs … they will fire if there’s resistance. That to me is a threat of war,” he said.

China’s new law could also have ramifications for Japan in the East China Sea.

Beijing has long coveted the waters, repeatedly sending fishing militia and its coastguard into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Japan’s Defence Ministry fears the move “could shake the order based on international law” according to reports. 

Beijing’s embassy in Manila claimed the law wasn’t aimed at any one country and abides by international conventions.

“Many countries have enacted similar legislation. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Law of 2009 established the PCG as an armed and uniformed service. None of these laws has been seen as a threat of war,” an embassy statement reads.

China’s coast guard is the most powerful force of its kind in the region. It is already active around East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing, as well as in the South China Sea, claiming almost its entirety.

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