Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 6 November 2020



China Coast Guard Law May Raise Risk of Clash in Disputed Seas

Bloomberg News
  • Beijing says new law would apply to ‘jurisdictional waters’
  • Coast guard would be allowed to board vessels, use weapons

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China is considering legislation that would clarify its coast guard powers to fire on foreign vessels in some circumstances, a move that could fuel the risk of military miscalculation in disputed waters in the region.

The coast guard would be allowed to use “all necessary means” -- including weapons -- to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels, according to a bill released by the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament. Coast guard personnel would be permitted to board and inspect foreign ships operating in China’s “jurisdictional waters” -- some of which are also claimed by other countries.

China’s top legislative body -- the NPC Standing Committee -- began reviewing the draft last month, and was expected to go through further reviews in the coming months. The proposal includes some existing regulations from various departments, including internal documents not made previously known to the public.

The measure aims to strengthen China’s capability to safeguard its maritime rights as the country “faces a stern and complex situation,” according to an explanatory note that accompanied the draft.

The move could raise the risk of a miscalculation -- or even conflict -- in the South China Sea, where U.S. “freedom of navigation” transits have raised tensions between the world’s two biggest economies and several other Asian countries have territorial claims that overlap with China’s. It could also prompt other nations to bolster their military presence in the waters, including the U.S., with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien saying last month that the U.S. Coast Guard was looking to expand its presence in the Pacific.

“This will be the first time that the coast guard is given power, explicitly by law, to use weapons in disputed waters,” said Zhang Mingliang, associate professor at School of International Studies at Guangzhou-based Jinan University. “This will definitely complicate an already tense situation in the South China Sea. It is likely it will face pushback from neighboring countries, as well as the U.S.”

Concerns have also grown in recent months over the potential for conflict across the Taiwan Strait, as China’s air force piles near-daily pressure on Taipei. Nearby, Beijing has tussled with Japan over century-old claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea -- called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China.

Expanding Role

The draft law is the latest step to give the Chinese coast guard more power. The fleet became part of the People’s Armed Police in 2018, solidifying a dual role as both an armed force and a civilian regulator with oversight of areas including fisheries and environmental protection.

The coast guard has in the past focused on cracking down on smuggling and illegal fishing, and would seldom operate in disputed areas, Zhang said. But the fleet has increased its presence in disputed waters recently, including a stand-off with Vietnam in the South China Sea’s Vanguard Bank last year.

“It is fair to call the law part of the steady militarization of China’s coast guard,” said Isaac Kardon, an assistant professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College.

“Beijing now has a clearer justification and set of authorities to implement policies through assertive use of the CCG,” he said. “That may well create more friction if, as seems likely, the CCG becomes steadily more aggressive about enforcing China’s domestic law.”

The Communist Party-backed Global Times cited Tian Shichen, a vice director with think tank Grandview Institution, as saying that coast guards in the U.S., Japan and others carry out law enforcement in seas and airspace under their jurisdiction, including using lethal force in certain situations.

“There is a need for clear legal authorization of who the law enforcer is, what weapons need to be used, and procedures for law enforcement,” Tian told the publication. “The Coast Guard Law is intended to address this issue.”

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