Amendments to China’s Maritime Traffic Safety Law took effect yesterday, requiring foreign vessels to apply for permits and inform the country’s maritime authorities before entering its territorial waters. Although China’s propaganda machine wants the world to believe that the amendments were imposed to control the spread of COVID-19, the truth is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is seeking to reinforce its control over disputed territorial waters that it claims. There are reasons for neighboring countries, including Taiwan, to be concerned.
The amendments were only passed on April 29, and analysts and commentators immediately linked them to February’s changes to China’s Coast Guard Law, which authorized firing on foreign vessels and demolishing structures built in disputed waters.
However, the two amendments go beyond even this. When understood as a consolidated effort to increase coordination between maritime policy and military enforcement, a broader picture emerges. Both are part of efforts to hasten China’s rise as a maritime power, and so are June last year’s revisions to the People’s Armed Police Law, January’s revisions to the National Defense Law and the implementation of the Hainan Free Trade Port Law on June 10.
The new pieces of legislation bolster the CCP’s claims not only to the territorial waters and contiguous zones along China’s coast, recognized in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but to areas farther afield, in the South and East China seas.
The People’s Armed Police Law amendments place maritime rights protection within the law’s mandate and enables further integration of the law — which applies to the Chinese Coast Guard and falls under the Chinese Central Military Commission — with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The Hainan Free Trade Port Law gives the Sansha City Government jurisdiction over disputed areas in the South China Sea and regards maritime economic development in the area as part of China’s “development interests.”
The revised National Defense Law authorizes the PLA to get involved when China’s “development interests” are at risk.
The combination of these laws consolidates interaction between civilian, police and military agencies in conflicts over maritime claims. Herein lies another problem. China has conflicting territorial claims with many countries in the region, including Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, laying claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, within its arbitrarily contrived “nine-dash line.”
Beijing refused to cooperate in a 2016 South China Sea arbitration case brought by the Philippines at the Permanent Court of Arbitration or accept the court’s ruling that China’s claims over the area within the “nine-dash line” were without merit.
Beijing also claims the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), which are not only claimed by Taiwan, but also by Japan, which administers them and calls them the Senkaku Islands. The PLA Navy has frequently sent patrols to the waters around the islands, increasing tensions between Japan and China. These new pieces of legislation will not only give Chinese vessels more leeway when dealing with Japanese vessels in the area, they will also give them the right to open fire.
These revisions, together with the intentional ambiguity regarding Beijing’s definition of its territorial waters, risk igniting tensions in what is already a tinderbox. They will also risk conflicts flaring up over freedom of navigation operations by nations such as the US, which will not recognize China’s new rules, as they do not conform to UN conventions.
Neither are China’s laws static: New amendments might move the goalposts farther, more powerful vessels will be added to China’s coast guard fleet and the CCP will continue its island-building program, testing other nations’ resolve with its salami-slicing.
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