A new law by China allowing its coast guard to use violent force on foreign ships in waters it claims including the South China Sea raises the risks of miscalculation and has evoked sharp reactions from some SE Asian countries and Japan.
China’s new coast guard law went into effect on February 1. It allows the Chinese coast guard to fire upon vessels around the Senkaku Islands or ships around a number of reefs and islands in the South China Sea where Beijing has contested claims with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, among others.
Like the Philippines and Vietnam, Japan has expressed grave concern over the new law, with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi saying it must not be applied in a way that violates international standards. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also expressed Japan’s strong concern over the law saying it violated international norms. India, whose over 50 per cent of the international trade passes through the South China Sea region must keep close watch on implications of China’s new law on New Delhi’s economic interests in the region.
In December, as China was debating a draft of the new law, Toshinari Matsuo, director of the Operational Law Office at the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Maritime Command and Staff College, wrote that the new law went beyond the norms established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS says a coastal state may take the necessary steps against foreign vessels passing through its territorial waters if their passage is not innocent.
The Senkakus region is monitored by Japanese coast guard vessels and patrol aircraft. It is important that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reaffirmed with U.S. President Joe Biden that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which obliges the U.S. to defend territories under Japanese administrative control, applies to the Senkaku Islands.
ASEAN members should make it clear that any use of force by China in their waters would be considered an act of war, according to experts. Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, former Commander-in-Chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, told VN Express International (leading newspaper of Vietnam) that for Vietnam, as well as Japan, the most dangerous situation is not China Coast Guard’s use of weapons under the law. Rather, China’s use of the law as a key element of its “lawfare” to expand its territories “peacefully” is the real problem.
Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday in an interview with CNN Philippines said, “I’m very concerned about this law because it might cause miscalculations and accidents there, especially now that they are now allowed to fire at foreign vessels.”
The China Coast Guard, he said, operates in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, part of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea, where the Philippine navy and coast guard also patrol.
“The chances of accident or miscalculation [are] great, and so I call upon all claimants there, Chinese, Vietnamese to exercise caution and carefulness in implementing their laws,” Lorenzana said.
He said the Philippines would discuss with its allies, including the United States, and other claimants, how to handle the situation.
More countries outside the region, like the United Kingdom, Australia and India, are also planning to patrol the disputed waters to carry out freedom of navigation operations. Lorenzana said the Philippine government would continue engaging with these third parties “to find ways to move forward.”
The Philippine government last January filed a diplomatic protest against the new Chinese law, which was seen as “a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law which, if unchallenged, is submission to it.”
Countries in SE Asia should come up with a consistent and unified position on this issue. That is the only way to get China to withdraw the law or keep the country from implementing it in the jurisdictions of other countries.
The U.S. sent two aircraft carrier strike groups for joint operations in the South China Sea on Tuesday to counter-balance after its new law. Tuesday’s exercises saw the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz strike groups conduct “a multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities,” the U.S. Navy said. Last week, the U.S. Navy conducted its first “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea and its first transit of the Taiwan Strait under the Biden administration. The dual carrier operations came as a French nuclear attack submarine was among two navy ships that recently conducted a patrol through the waterway, France’s defense chief said in a tweet Monday.
The Emeraude submarine was joined by the support ship Seine for the passage, Defense Minister Florence Parly wrote on Twitter. “This extraordinary patrol has just completed a passage in the South China Sea,” Parly wrote. “This is striking proof of the capacity of the French Navy to deploy far away for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners.”
France, the United States and Japan are expected to hold joint military drills on land and at sea for the first time in May, Japanese media reported late last year.
The intent behind China’s new law cannot be ignored. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed authorities to accelerate the implementation of laws related to foreign affairs. He called for the protection of national sovereignty and core interests through legislation and law enforcement. The new coast guard law is part of that push. China has been forcefully implementing land reclamation in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
A 2020 U.S. Department of Defense report notes that, over the past decade, China has more than doubled the number of large coast guard patrol ships over 1,000 tons, from about 60 in 2010 to more than 130 as of last year. That makes the Chinese coast guard, dubbed by some as China’s second navy, the largest in the world, the DOD says.
The majority of these new ships are equipped with not only helicopter facilities and water cannons but also 30 mm and 76 mm guns, which are often much bigger than the guns carried by the coast guard fleets of other countries. Some of these coast guard ships can also operate far away from the mainland Chinese coast, and for extended periods of time.
14 Feb 21/ Sunday Source: THE ECONOMIC TIMES