China floats law to bring foreign underwater surveillance craft to the surface

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 11:22pm

Beijing has foreign maritime surveillance in its sights with plans to demand all foreign submersibles stick to the surface in Chinese waters.

The demands are part of proposed amendments to the maritime safety law released for public comment on Tuesday.

Analysts said the draft changes reflected Chinese unease about the vehicles – particularly in disputed waters – but would be difficult to enforce.

Under the draft, foreign underwater surveillance craft would have to sail on the surface and display their national flag in Chinese waters.

Chinese maritime authorities would also have to be informed of their movements.

In addition, Chinese maritime authorities would also be allowed to stop foreign ships entering Chinese waters if the vessels were deemed to cause harm to navigational safety and order.

The release of the draft comes after China seized and later returned an underwater drone deployed by USS Bowditch near international waters in the South China Sea late last year.

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It also comes as China steps up construction of artificial islands and expands its military presence in the waters.

Observers said various countries, including the United States, were deploying more monitoring vessels in the waters and the changes could help China consolidate its control over the South China Sea and fend off foreign close-in surveillance activities.

Lin Yongxin, a senior researcher from the government-affiliated National Institute on South China Sea Studies, said the proposed amendments reflected changing maritime security conditions.

“Beijing is seeking to improve its management of maritime security by adding new operational details into law, especially details related to growing threats from foreign close-in surveillance,” Lin said.

“The changes are made in accordance with the new maritime security situation confronting China. Law is an indispensable part in safeguarding maritime rights.”

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Zhang Jie, a regional security researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said more frequent US surveillance in the South China Sea sent Beijing scrambling for legal justification to stop such activities.

“Close surveillance could pose a security threat to people on islands [in the area],” Zhang said.

“China does not have a law to govern such activities. Without such a law, Chinese enforcement vessels [are not equipped to] handle an emergency.”

China insists it has sovereignty over much of the South China Sea but Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also have competing claims in the waters. The various territorial claims would make enforcement difficult if the law came into effect, observers said.

Luo Guoqiang, an international law expert from Wuhan University, said some islands were not controlled by China.

“If China unilaterally decided to apply the law to waters surrounding islands not under its control, actual law enforcement would be immensely difficult,” he said.