China, on January 22, passed a law elaborating the specific conditions under which the Chinese coast guard will be authorized to use weapons on foreign vessels. This law has raised several global concerns about the potential raise of risk of maritime incidents and escalation. The US and Philippines have also voiced concerns regarding the law stating that it may ‘escalate the ongoing territorial and maritime disputes’ in the area and can invoke unlawful claims.
The Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has now been complaining for year about the inadequacy of a strong legal foundation to govern the use of force due to institutional balkanisation. Following the merge of four of its five major maritime law enforcement agencies into a uniform coast guard – China Marine Surveillance (CMS), Maritime Police, Fishery Law Enforcement (FLE), Anti-Smuggling Police – the CCG had to derive its legislations based on the provisions designed for the former individual agencies. The lack of a defined legislation has led to an absence of a standardised procedure for the functions of the coast guard regarding use of force.
China is also known to have territorial disputed in both, the South China Sea and East China Sea regions, both areas supposedly rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources and essential to international trade. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan hold counterclaims over the South China Sea region, whereas Japan is known to have maritime sovereignty disputes in the East China Sea. Beijing has assembled and militarised several islands and reefs in the region under its control. Foreign warships, especially American ones, are regularly transiting the South China seawaters, including the Taiwan Strait.
The law seems highly problematic, considering the huge and ongoing dispute between China and the other claimants over maritime capabilities. The language of the new law allows the coast guard to destroy other nations’ economic structures and to use force defending China’s maritime claims in the disputed regions. A clause states that it ‘will allow the coast guard to check foreign vessel, mooring and operating in China’s jurisdictional seas’, making it difficult to interpret the definition of Chinese ‘jurisdictional seas.’
According to Pamalakaya, the Philippine artisanal fishermen’s association, the law provisions are ‘undisputedly an act of aggression against neighbouring coastal states.’ The Philippines also filed a diplomatic protest over the new law, calling it a ‘threat of war.’ The U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, last week also reported that Washington is concerned about the legal language in the new law that ‘expressly ties the potential use of force, including armed force, by the China coast guard to the enforcement of China’s claims.’ U.S. too has aligned mutual defence treaties with Japan and the Philippines and has sailed regular naval patrols in the area as a challenge to China’s extensive maritime claims and to imply freedom of navigation. They have reminded China of its obligations under the United Nations Charter, directing it to refrain from the threat or use of force and to conform its maritime claims to the International Law of Sea, as per the Law of the Sea Convention, 1982. They have also rejected any Chinese claim to waters beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea from the pre-claimed islands in the Spratlys, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea region.
China, however, has repeatedly defended its new China Coast Guard Law, underplaying its influences and consequences in the disputed regions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in January stated that China is just upholding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests’, and that Beijing is committed to ‘peaceful settlement of disputes’.
“The Chinese have reassured us through their spokesman [that] they are not targeting the Philippines or any specific country and that they will not resort to force in the first instance,” said Chita Sta. Romana, the Philippines’ ambassador to China.
China’s motive to clarify and standardise the coast guard operations should be expressed. Beijing denies that the Coast Guard Law would influence its relations with the Philippines or artisanal fishermen, however it needs to clarify the aggravated concerns in the region regarding the amendment by ensuring transparency.
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