China authorises coast guard to fire on foreign vessels

China has passed a law that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, a move that could make the contested South China Sea and nearby waters more choppy.

The Coast Guard Law passed on Friday empowers it to “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”.

China has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.

It has sent its coast guard to chase away fishing vessels from other countries, sometimes resulting in the sinking of these ships.

China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress standing committee, passed the Coast Guard Law on Friday, according to state media reports.

Potential flashpoints

China’s coast guard is the most powerful force of its kind in the region and is already active in the vicinity of uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing, as well as in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety.

Those activities have brought the coast guard into frequent contact with air and sea forces from Japan, its chief ally the US, and other claimants to territory in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Both water bodies are considered potential flashpoints and the law’s passage may be a signal China is preparing to up the stakes over what it considers its key national interests.

Controlling them is a strategic imperative if China wishes to displace the US as the dominant military power in East Asia, while the resources they contain, including fish stocks and undersea deposits of oil and natural gas, may be key to maintaining China’s continued economic development.

The bill specified the circumstances under which different kind of weapons – handheld, shipborne or airborne – can be used.

The bill allowed coast guard personnel to demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.

The bill also empowered the coastguard to create temporary exclusion zones “as needed” to stop other vessels and personnel from entering.

Responding to concerns, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday the law is in line with international practices. 

The first article of the bill explained the law is needed to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and maritime rights.

Complicate US relations

This law comes seven years after China merged several civilian maritime law-enforcement agencies to form a coast guard bureau.

After the bureau came under the command of the People’s Armed Police in 2018, it became a proper branch of the military forces.

The latest move by China could also further complicate its relations with the United States, which maintains strategic alliances with several Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, which have competing maritime claims with Beijing.

In a social media post, Christian Le Miere, a maritime diplomacy analyst and founder of the London and The Hague-based group Arcipel, said the new law “strikes at the heart” of the US policy of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“China’s coast guard is already doing most of the heavy lifting in maritime coercion in the near seas, so it’s worth examining the new legislation just passed on this issue.”

The International Court in The Hague has nullified China’s nine-dash line claim, which asserts control of most of the South China Sea.

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