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A Chinese coastguard vessel in the waters around Indonesia's Natuna Islands. Photo: Indonesian Maritime Security Agency

China gives coastguards power to fire on foreign ships in disputed waters

  • Force now authorised to use ‘any means necessary’ in all areas where China claims jurisdiction
  • Move risks raising tensions in parts of the East and South China where country’s neighbours have a series of overlapping claims

China has risked stoking tensions with its neighbours after it passed a law that for the first time explicitly allows its coastguards to fire on foreign vessels and demolish structures built in disputed waters.

The coastguard law, passed on Friday by China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, came two years after China’s military assumed control of the previously civilian maritime body in 2018.

The law empowers the coastguard to use “all necessary means” to deter threats posed by foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction”. It will also allow the coastguards to launch pre-emptive strikes without prior warning if commanders deem it necessary.

It is unclear whether the law will be applied to all waters claimed by Beijing, which has a number of competing claims with its neighbours in the East and South China Seas.

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Under the new bill, coastguard personnel can demolish structures built or installed by other countries in Chinese-claimed waters and board and inspect foreign ships in the area.

The passing of the law is likely to heighten concern among China’s neighbours about the prospect of more aggressive operations.

Chinese coastguard ships have played a leading role in asserting China’s maritime claims, including in fishing disputes off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and the stand-off with Vietnam over Vanguard Bank.

Other claimants in the South China Sea are racing to empower their coastguard fleets. For example, Vietnam passed a law permitting its coastguard fleet to operate outside the country’s territorial waters.

Japanese diplomats have previously lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, Islands in the East China Sea.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the new law would clarify the functions and authority of the coastguard forces and that it was in line with international practice. Hua added that China will continue to manage its differences with Japan through dialogue.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the ambiguous language in the law could heighten the risk of miscalculation in the disputed waters.

“[Though] promulgating a coastguard law (CGL) is a general practice that other countries have been doing (such as Vietnam back in late 2018), China’s CGL contains ambiguous language that begs proper definition, for instance ‘waters under national jurisdiction’,” said Koh.

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“This also means the law bestows … the authority to use force to assert those rights against other foreign parties even when operating in the latter’s legitimate [exclusive economic zone],” he said

“Generally it means heightening the risk of miscalculation and could possibly even create a deterrent effect on others’ law enforcement actions against Chinese fishermen.”

With front-line personnel granted the authority to judge whether they should open fire, Koh said the open nature of the provisions “may be prone to abuse” and could escalate the situation.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Coastguard given power to fire on foreign ships