China has risked stoking tensions with its neighbours after it passed a law that for the first time explicitly allows its coastguards to fire on foreign vessels and demolish structures built in disputed waters.
The coastguard law, passed on Friday by China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, came two years after China’s military assumed control of the previously civilian maritime body in 2018.
The law 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.
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. Hua added that China will continue to manage its differences with Japan through dialogue.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, 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
“Generally it means heightening the risk of miscalculation and could possibly even create a deterrent effect on others’ law enforcement actions against Chinese fishermen.”
With front-line personnel granted the authority to judge whether they should open fire, Koh said the open nature of the provisions “may be prone to abuse” and could escalate the situation.
The United States plans to send Coast Guard ships to waters in the Western Pacific commonly patrolled by Chinese ships. Experts say the move is aimed at strengthening U.S. efforts to contain Chinese expansion in the area without inviting a heated conflict.
The Coast Guard is planning to deploy “Fast Response Cutter” ships in the Western Pacific to protect the interests of America and its partners, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement last month.
The Coast Guard says its Fast Response Cutters are designed to deploy independently to carry out activities including “port, waterways and coastal security, fishery patrols, search and rescue and national defense.”
A spokesman for the Department of Defense’s U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said this week the timing for the Western Pacific operations is still being planned.
O’Brien said Coast Guard ships will check for any illegal or unreported fishing that “threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability.”
China has the world’s largest distant-water fishing operation, involving an estimated 4,600 ships. Chinese enforcement ships do not always follow the ships’ movements, Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz said last month. But he said the U.S. deployment plan is not just about fish.
Experts say increased U.S. Coast Guard activity will also show China that the U.S. is prepared to check Chinese activity without risking conflict by using navy ships. Coast Guard ships are largely seen as defensive, while navy ships are built to launch attacks.
“It looks tamer [than the navy] but it also signals resolve to confront China,” said Alan Chong, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The Coast Guard, Chong said, “is a way of signaling presence without running the risk of triggering a shooting incident.”
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. government has increased the number of short U.S. Navy ship visits through parts of the disputed South China Sea. U.S. officials say the ships were sent to carry out “freedom of navigation” exercises. Such operations are meant to show military force and support free movement of shipping in international waters.
Six governments have competing claims in the South China Sea, which acts as a pathway for one-third of the world’s shipping traffic. China claims about 90 percent of the sea as its territory and often sends coast guard ships throughout the waterway.
In September, three Fast Response Cutters reached the U.S. territory of Guam to take the place of older ships, Coast Guard chief Schultz said in a speech last month. Guam is closer to Asia than other U.S. ports. The ships will seek to prevent illegal activity, carry out search and rescue operations and strengthen partnerships in the area, Schultz said.
The U.S. Coast Guard has been in Asia before. Last year, two ships spent a total of 10 months in the Western Pacific checking on economic restrictions against North Korea. Schultz said those ships also took part in “capacity building” activities with ships from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.