Implications of China’s New Coast Guard Law
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

The new law passed by China’s legislature giving powers allowing its Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels (without warning if necessary) as also permitting it to demolish structures built in under the ‘jurisdiction’ of China is undoubtedly a coercive step causing concerns to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei who are claimants in the South China Sea. Japan is also concerned because of Chinese claims over Senkakus Islands in the East China Sea. It has been pointed by many analysts that China's new Coast Guard contains ambiguous language that lacks due clarity and proper definition e.g. 'waters under national jurisdiction'. The new law has come into force with effect from 01 Feb 2021 onwards. It can easily be said that this step is part of China’s ongoing ‘three types of warfare’ i.e. Legal Warfare, Media warfare and Psychological Warfare. Indeed it is also going to escalate tensions in both South China Sea and East China Sea and therefore it would also add to risks of miscalculation on part of the Chinese maritime forces.

It is indeed a coercive measure designed by China to expand its hold and dominance over South China Sea, East China Sea and other maritime areas claimed by it. Even though Chinese Spokesperson has said that it is aligned with international practices and norms it is quite evident that such a statement is only a cover for its expansionist and irredentist intentions. China has so far failed to adhere to the provisions of UNCLOS 1982 and views all areas within it’s so called Nine Dash Line as within its ‘jurisdiction’ in the South China Sea. China’s claims of ‘historic rights’ have also found no acceptance. China’s claims are in complete disregard to international norms and practices; and especially so such claims violate UNCLOS 1982 as supported by the decision of UN’s PCA’ judgment of July 2016 in case of China’s dispute with Philippines. The new CCG law in some manner adds to the legal tool kit of China for undertaking aggressive actions even if it is so called part of China’s domestic law.

Over the years the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) has increasingly acquired military like capabilities with its command control being placed under the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Central Military Commission. This chain of command is similar to that of PLA. Further, some of the CCG ships have reinforced hulls with tonnage of as much as 10,000 tonnes which is more than some of the naval ships. It is being said that such ships are designed to be used for ramming into other countries’ ships. Such tactics could be said to be a naval version of what PLA has been doing along Eastern Ladakh border i.e. contesting and coercing the Indian troops without firing weapons. Further, PLA Navy and the CCG carried a joint exercise in July last year in the SCS to practice seizure of an island and subdue the restive population there. Such steps on part of China reflect Xi’s aggressive foreign and security policies which would appeal to nationalist sentiments in China.

Indian political leadership has taken note of this intimidating step taken by China and hopes China will not precipitate the tense and sensitive situation in the South China Sea and look for peaceful solution to the disputes. It is well known that Chinese coastguard ships have been playing a significant role in asserting China's maritime disputes, especially regarding fishing rights within Indonesia's EEZ near Natuna Islands as also with Vietnam over Vanguard Bank. The new law will give more authority to Chinese Coast Guard to use force to assert such rights against other countries or their assets even when they are operating within their legitimate EEZ’s etc.

There is no doubt that Vietnam and other claimants in the SCS would have to continue strengthening their relationships strategically with not only the regional players, ASEAN and members of the Quad but also with other powers to bring a modicum of balance and stability in the SCS. Joe Biden’s administration is expected to follow a hard line policy approach to China; Australia, Japan and India would also continue to work together to bring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. During the recent Quad Foreign Ministers’ meeting China’s Coast Guard Law found a noticeable mention. The US reiterated the need for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity. Japanese Foreign Minister emphasised that “the four Ministers concurred to strongly oppose unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and South China Sea”.

The Philippines has sent a diplomatic note to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raising objections to the language regarding the use of force and especially likely application of the new law in areas which Manila considers beyond China’s territory or within EEZ. The Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin has termed the new law as “a verbal threat of war to any country that defies it”. Chinese on the other hand say that it is a domestic legislation and they will continue to look for peaceful resolution of the dispute through negotiations. Locsin further went on to add that “If there is an incident, I can assure you there will be more than just a protest.”

However, meanwhile Chinese Coast Guard activities would need to be continually monitored to observe how far the Coast Guard goes in giving a practical shape to applying the new law to areas claimed by China. Chinese actions regarding implementation of law could be selective also with a view to deal with each SCS claimants individually. After carrying out aggressive action against one country it would then deal with other claimants one by one. Therefore, ASEAN unity or unity amongst the claimants remains very important; hopefully, Philippines might have realized by now the significance of this aspect.

Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) by US and such support from other navies would also add to balancing of China’s aggression and proclivity to implement the new law for the Chinese Coast Guard. Therefore, adequate naval presence of outside powers in South China Sea would be necessary to deter ambitious and aggressive actions by Chinese forces including the Coast Guard.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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