New law lets China Coast Guard fire on foreign vessels

Move could prompt other nations to bolster their military presence in disputed waters

Ms Hua Chunying said that China will remain committed to upholding peace and stability in the sea.
Ms Hua Chunying said that China will remain committed to upholding peace and stability in the sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • China has passed a controversial law that gives the coast guard more freedom to fire on foreign vessels, a move that could fuel the risk of military miscalculation in the Western Pacific.

The law, which takes effect from Feb 1, is aimed at "safeguarding national sovereignty, security and maritime rights", the official Xinhua News Agency said in a statement yesterday.

The China Coast Guard would be allowed to take "all necessary means", including the use of weapons, to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels, said Xinhua. Coast guard personnel will be permitted to board and inspect foreign ships operating in China's "jurisdictional waters", a term covering areas claimed by other countries.

The move could raise the risk of miscalculation in the vast areas of disputed waters that stretch out from China's coast.

Chinese coast guard ships often come into close contact with foreign vessels - sometimes engaging in tense stand-offs - as they assert Beijing's claims to much of the South and East China seas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing on Friday in Beijing that the move was a "normal legislative activity of the NPC (National People's Congress)" and that China "will remain committed to upholding peace and stability in the sea".

Claims to the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea have put China at odds with South-east Asia neighbours including Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In the East China Sea, Chinese and Japanese government vessels routinely tail each other on patrols near uninhabited islands claimed by both sides.

Japanese diplomats, in a conference call with Chinese counterparts last week, expressed strong opposition to repeated incursions by the country's vessels near the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyus in China.

The Chinese delegates urged the two sides to work to make the area a "sea of peace, cooperation and friendship", the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said.

The law is China's latest step to empower its coast guard, which was created in 2013 by merging several maritime agencies and incorporated in the People's Armed Police in 2018. The fleet has increased its presence in disputed waters recently, including a stand-off with Vietnam in the South China Sea's Vanguard Bank in 2019.

The move could also prompt other nations to bolster their military presence in the waters.

Meanwhile, eight Chinese bomber planes and four fighter jets yesterday entered the southwestern corner of Taiwan's air defence identification zone and Taiwan's air force deployed missiles to "monitor" the incursion, the island's Defence Ministry said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2021, with the headline 'New law lets China Coast Guard fire on foreign vessels'. Subscribe