The draft law, released by China’s National People’s Congress on November 4, empowers the country’s coast guard to use force against vessels that violate China’s territorial waters, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, as well as areas where China has sovereignty claims.
This bill has raised serious concerns, not only among other countries in the region, but also those that use the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, and the East China Sea.
If passed, it would threaten the lives and properties of other countries’ fishermen and obstruct freedom of navigation through important international shipping routes, experts say.
At a discussion on avoiding risks of maritime clashes, which was part of an international science conference on the South China Sea held in Hanoi November 16-17, Chinese scholars argued that the draft law was part of China’s internal affairs. They said Beijing has always pursued a traditional friendship policy with its neighbors on matters relating to the South China Sea.
However scholars from India, Japan and Southeast Asian nations expressed their misgivings. Even though a number of other coastal countries also allow their coast guard forces to use weapons under certain circumstances, the Chinese Coast Guard has a history of unruly, aggressive behavior toward fishermen and vessels of other countries in recent times, they said.
In April, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed into and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China’s survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has violated Vietnam’s EEZ on several occasions while being escorted by coast guard vessels, as well as tailed a Malaysian oil exploration vessel.
Since the beginning of the year, China has sent coast guard vessels to approach the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea more than 20 times to challenge Japan’s claim over them. At one point, Chinese coast guard vessels maintained a presence in the area for 111 days straight, marking the longest period of continuous approachment since Japan’s nationalization of a number of the islands in September 2012.
Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, said the draft law reminded him of the “law on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone” that China had passed in 1992, in which it arbitrarily set a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea for all four island groups in the South China Sea, including Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) islands.
Thayer said the new draft law was just “old wine in a new bottle” for China to continue claiming sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
According to Chinese media, the country’s coast guard has been equipped with patrol boats with displacements of up to 12,000 tons, making them the largest coast guard vessels in the world, even larger than the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
These coast guard vessels are also equipped with 76mm H/PJ-26 naval guns, as well as two auxiliary guns and two anti-aircraft guns, making their firepower comparable to many types of warships.
Thayer stressed that Chinese coast guard vessels are often equipped with weapons, and recalled a standoff between Malaysia and China that lasted from December 2019 until January this year. During this incident, China dispatched coast guard vessels near the area where the Malaysia-contracted drill ship West Capella was operating, prompting Malaysia to dispatch Jebat guided missile frigates to protect the drill ship.
“Malaysia has guided missile frigates, but the Chinese Coast Guard has 5,000-ton ships and even patrol boats equipped with 76 mm guns. Therefore, this is similar to gunboat diplomacy,” he added.
Gunboat diplomacy is a term referring to the use of conspicuous displays of naval power to threaten other countries in order to achieve foreign policy objectives and force the threatened countries to make concessions in territorial or trade issues.
Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, former Commander-in-Chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, commented that the world needs to consider how Chinese coast guard vessels will use their weapons should the draft law be passed.
“We are very concerned about China’s past activities and their future criteria on when the coast guard is allowed to use weapons. For example, in a number of areas in the South China Sea, we consider them international waters but China claims them to be its waters,” he said.
Koda suggested that by not clarifying the waters in which the draft law would apply, China “would create a serious international problem. This ambiguity is really arousing profound concerns,” he said.
When a Chinese scholar asked whether the prevention of maritime incidents is just an issue between China and the other countries or a regional issue, Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, Director General of India’s National Maritime Foundation, asserted that it is a regional issue and other countries are not excluded.
He explained that China is paid closer attention because other countries, despite having differences, tend to operate within a framework based on international rules and practices, while China’s sovereignty claims have been rejected by many parties.
“Therefore, in this issue, the party that receives the most attention is obviously China,” he said.