China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has passed a law that gives power to its coastguard to fire on foreign vessels and demolish structures built in disputed waters.
Although it is yet to be ascertained whether the law will be applied to all waters claimed by Beijing but the move is expected to escalate tensions between China and its neighbours in the East and South China Seas.
The law was passed on Friday and empowers the coastguard to use “all necessary means” to deter threats posed by foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction”. It will also allow the coastguards to launch pre-emptive strikes without prior warning if commanders deem it necessary.
Under the new bill, coastguard personnel can demolish structures built or installed by other countries in Chinese-claimed waters and board and inspect foreign ships in the area.
Chinese coastguard ships have played a leading role in asserting China’s maritime claims, including in fishing disputes off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and the stand-off with Vietnam over Vanguard Bank.
China claims virtually entire South China Sea, something which is contested heavily by several countries in the region. As per media reports, some parts of the waters that fall within Manila’s exclusive economic zone was renamed West Philippine Sea by the Philippine government.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its efforts to advance into the Indian Ocean are seen to have challenged the established rules-based system.
China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing’s concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the new law would clarify the functions and authority of the coastguard forces and that it was in line with international practice.
Meanwhile, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the ambiguous language in the law could heighten the risk of miscalculation in the disputed waters.
“[Though] promulgating a coastguard law (CGL) is a general practice that other countries have been doing (such as Vietnam back in late 2018), China’s CGL contains ambiguous language that begs proper definition, for instance ‘waters under national jurisdiction’,” said Koh.
“This also means the law bestows … the authority to use force to assert those rights against other foreign parties even when operating in the latter’s legitimate [exclusive economic zone],” he said.