Chinaâ€™s legislature has drafted a new law granting the China Coast Guard permission to use weapons within the countryâ€™s â€œjurisdictional waters,â€ opening the possibility of coast guard ships using more explicit armed force in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Chinaâ€™s Central Military Commission, which oversees the countryâ€™s armed forces, first proposed the law in late September. A draft text was subsequently released by Chinaâ€™s legislative body, the National Peopleâ€™s Congress, on Wednesday, as first reported by the National Peopleâ€™s Congress Observer website. The measure is open for public comment until Dec. 3, after which it could be passed into law.
Hunter Stires, a fellow with the U.S. Naval War College, said the new law was â€œdesigned to intimidate.â€
â€œThe [Chinese Communist Party] is trying to tell other claimant governments that China means business,â€ he said in an interview. â€œThis is a signal not to challenge China Coast Guard operations in waters that are rightfully the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian nations.â€
Notably, the law explicitly states Chinaâ€™s coast guard and other maritime law enforcement agencies may use small arms, such as rifles, or shipborne-weapons such as deck-mounted guns, when encountering a ship determined to be acting â€œillegallyâ€ in â€œjurisdictional waters,â€ although not without some degree of caution.
â€œThe staff of a maritime law enforcement agency shall determine the nature, degree, and urgency of the perpetrator of a crime, and exercise reasonable judgment in the use of weapons,â€ the draft states in section six, which describes revisions to use of force and permissions for maritime law enforcement agencies. â€œFor weapons, shooting at areas below the waterline of a ship should be avoided as much as possible.â€
The types of offenses potentially warranting force include arms-smuggling, drugs-smuggling, hiding and abetting criminals, obstructing law enforcement, and illegal economic activity by foreign vessels in Chinaâ€™s â€œjurisdictional waters.â€ Deck-mounted guns are expressly allowed to be used for â€œcounter-terrorismâ€ operations, when facing â€œviolenceâ€ at sea, or when law enforcement agencies arenâ€™t obeyed or are obstructed.
There is no concrete definition of â€œjurisdictional waters,â€ nor does China explicitly state what areas it considers to be covered under that term. But China has previously attempted to exercise jurisdiction as far afield as the waters off Fiery Cross Reef, in the Spratly archipelago section of the South China Sea.
The China Coast Guard and Ministry of Public Security arrested suspected drug traffickers there in September. This was despite the fact China does not, under international law, have any economic or legal rights to those waters, and they are still disputed between China and six other governments.Â
China claims to hold sovereignty over nearly the entirety of the South China Sea on the basis of â€œhistoric rights,â€ including over land features and the waters between them. However, six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
â€œThe primary target of this move and Chinaâ€™s activity in general in the South China Sea are really local civilian mariners who depend on access to the South China Sea for their daily livelihood,â€ Stires said. â€œIf they can gain compliance from the mariners themselves, over time, Chinese will become customary international law. If it is left unchecked.â€
The China Coast Guard, or CCG, is one of the largest coast guard agencies in the world, and is known to act aggressively to assert Chinaâ€™s claims in the South China Sea. CCG ships have been spotted within other countriesâ€™ waters, and have previously been observed ramming and shooting water cannons at other countriesâ€™ boats in the South China Sea.
Since a pivotal restructuring in 2018, the CCG has been a constituent part of the Peopleâ€™s Armed Police, a branch of the Chinese military under the Central Military Commission. The CCG is therefore part of Chinaâ€™s armed forces.
The civilian functions normally associated with other countriesâ€™ coastguard agencies, such as search-and-rescue operations and traffic control at ports or waterways, are handled by other agencies like the Ministry of Transportâ€™s Maritime Safety Administration.