China has passed a law that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, a move that could make the contested South China Sea and nearby waters more choppy.
China has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.
It has sent its coast guard to chase away fishing vessels from other countries, sometimes resulting in the sinking of these vessels.
China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress standing committee, passed the Coast Guard Law on Friday, according to state media reports.
According to draft wording in the bill published earlier, the coast guard is allowed to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels.
The bill specified the circumstances under which different kind of weapons – handheld, shipborne or airborne – can be used.
The bill allowed coast guard personnel to demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.
The bill also empowered the coastguard to create temporary exclusion zones “as needed” to stop other vessels and personnel from entering.
Responding to concerns, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the law is in line with international practices.
After the bureau came under the command of the People’s Armed Police in 2018, it became a proper branch of the military forces.
The latest move by China could also further complicate its relations with the United States, which maintains strategic alliances with several Asia-Pacific countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, which have competing maritime claims with Beijing.
In a social media post, Christian Le Miere, a maritime diplomacy analyst and founder of the London and The Hague-based group, Arcipel, said the new law “strikes at the heart” of the US policy of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“China’s coast guard is already doing most of the heavy lifting in maritime coercion in the near seas, so it’s worth examining the new legislation just passed on this issue.”
The International Court in The Hague has nullified China’s nine-dash line claim, which asserts control of most of the South China Sea.