The Chinese government has introduced draft legislation that will allow its coast guard to use weapons against foreign ships that are found to be involved in “illegal activities” in Chinese waters. However, since China’s claims over some portions of the South China Sea have been dismissed by its neighbors, the coast guard will effectively have firing rights in contested waters. Such a move will trigger insecurity and instability in the region.
Coast guard powers
China’s latest decision has set off alarm bells in Japan since both countries are fighting over the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese government does not accept Japan’s claim over them and uses the name “Diaoyu Islands” for the region; Chinese vessels have been spotted near these islands on a frequent basis. The draft legislation will thus allow the Chinese coast guard to use weapons against Japanese ships sailing around the islands.
Katsunobu Kato, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, noted that his government will be watching over the developments with “great interest.” A few government agencies have been tasked with gathering information regarding the issue.
With the new legislation, the Chinese coast guard will have a freer reign over weapons usage compared to their Japanese counterparts. “Japanese law requires confirmation of ‘suspicious activity’ on board a foreign vessel, and even then forbids responses that could put people in danger unless a specific set of conditions is met, including possible preparations for a serious crime.
The Chinese legislation would let coast guard vessels that are under attack respond with shipborne or airborne weapons. It also allows for other measures, such as detention and towing, to be taken against foreign vessels considered to have illegally entered Chinese waters,” according to Nikkei Asia.
The new legislation has been established to set up a formal structure for the Chinese coast guard. They are not only allowed to use weapons against foreign ships but can also seize the vessels. If a foreign power is found to engage in construction in Chinese waters, the coast guard has the right to remove such structures. The legislation is expected to be passed in December and would give China legal grounds to act against structures on disputed regions like the Senkaku Islands.
The Chinese coast guard has been increasing its fleet size over the years. In 2019, the coast guard had 130 ships with a capability of 1,000-ton displacement. By contrast, the Japanese coast guard only had 66 ships. The Chinese are focusing on bigger ships with 10,000-ton displacement capability and featuring 76-mm automatic cannons.
US and the Philippines move against Beijing
The U.S. government has decided to deploy coast guard ships to monitor Chinese activities in the South China Sea fishing grounds. Robert O’Brien, the U.S. National Security Advisor, slammed China for harassing fishermen of neighboring nations as well as for being involved in illegal fishing in the region. The U.S. coast guard is also considering whether to set up a permanent station of patrol ships in the South Pacific.
Meanwhile, the Philippines government is apparently planning to swarm the South China Sea with fishing vessels, a strategy that is currently being used by Beijing. Teodoro Locsin, the country’s Foreign Affairs Secretary, admitted that this would also increase the likelihood of “accidents.” However, if any of its navy boats are struck by Beijing, Locsin says that his country will seek the assistance of the United States government.