China, yet again, has raised the ante in the East China Sea with its two latest announcements.
First, China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has passed a law authorizing the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to open fire on “foreign vessels” and demolish structures built in “disputed waters”. The 25th Standing Committee session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) released the Maritime Police Law of the People’s Republic of China, which was eventually promulgated on February 1.
With this law, the NPC Standing Committee empowers the China Coast Guard to use “all necessary means” to deter threats posed by foreign vessels in waters “under China’s jurisdiction.” The authorization permits the CCG to launch pre-emptive strikes without prior warning, demolish structures built or installed by other countries in waters claimed by China, and to stop and inspect foreign ships in the area.
This pronouncement is very alarming and heightens the risk of a possible miscalculation, which can threaten the overall stability and security of the entire Northeast Asia.
Re-defining China’s Marine Territory with Buoys
While China’s new law was still being deciphered by and deliberated upon, Beijing, under the auspices of the new law, reportedly dispatched a ship carrying a cannon-like weapon near the Senkaku Islands on Tuesday, February 16. There the armed vessel reportedly entered Japan’s territorial waters.
China’s second destabilizing pronouncement in the East China Sea in the month of February comes in the form of setting up a giant Chinese territory marker — a buoy marine surveillance network in the East China Sea, at an undisclosed location.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) headquartered in the Xicheng District of Beijing released a statement that the 15-meter-wide platform fills a gap in the buoy network used for collecting data, making it larger than most surveillance buoys worldwide. In comparison, the largest United States buoy is 12 meters wide.
Operated by the State Oceanic Administration of China, the buoy surveillance network is mandated to mark out territory in the East China Sea. In the past decade, the SOA’s number of buoys in the East China Sea tripled between 2014 and 2019, totaling to 27 such platforms.
The 15-meter-wide latest version estimates the “disputed waters” at a combined 340 sq km (131 square miles) — making for more than half of the entire East China Sea. The buoys are fitted with cameras and sensors, which shall alert Chinese naval and law enforcement agencies of any activity.
According to the CAS statement, “commissioning of this facility put an end to the absence of long-term, fixed-point, real-time water profile observation in the offshore waters of our country by enhancing the observation capabilities of the East China Sea Surveillance Network.”
Pushing Out the Boundaries by Stealth and Strength
The Coast Guard of China has begun playing a leading role in asserting Beijing’s maritime claims, both in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. In my July 2020 JAPAN Forward column, I argued how China Coast Guard’s militarization would directly impact upon the stability around the Senkakus.
The repeated and mounting visibility of CCG vessels near the Senkaku Islands are ominous signals, especially incidents of CCG vessels entering the 12-nautical mile boundaries around the islands, and thereafter moving to the contiguous zone just outside the territorial waters. Interests of the CCG in conjunction with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-Navy, preparing to employ stealth to China’s naval operations in and around the Senkaku Islands, are gaining ground and authenticity.
The People’s Armed Police is a paramilitary police component of China’s armed forces and an armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2018, China’s Central Military Commission assumed direct control of the PAP, and in turn the PAP was handed control of the China Coast Guard. Therefore, the CCG is now a quasi-military organization falling under the Chinese military’s PLA chain of command.
This is amplifying politico-military considerations in decision making on territorial issues being undertaken by the Communist Party of China (CCP). It affects a wide range of military, paramilitary, and policing activities, ranging from operational to diplomatic options while sailing in politically susceptible regions.
Possessing the world’s largest coast guard fleet, the CCG’s rapid expansion and modernization has improved China’s ability to enforce its maritime claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. According to the 2020 U.S. Department of Defense’s China Report submitted to the U.S. Congress, the CCG is subordinate to the paramilitary PAP and “is responsible for a wide range of missions under the umbrella of maritime rights protection, including enforcement of the PRC’s sovereignty claims, surveillance…and general law enforcement.”
By virtue of the latest pronouncements, China is establishing a pattern of employing paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies primarily in maritime disputes, and selectively using the PLA-Navy to provide overwatch in case of escalation.
In the garb of data collection, the latest “XL buoy network” has been inserted palpably to demonstrate China’s sovereignty and bolster its claims in the region. Moreover, it expediently aids the advanced-scale Chinese ocean surveillance network commissioned to succor and strengthen Beijing’s territorial expansionist agenda.
Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated. She tweets @MonikaChansoria. Find other articles by Dr. Chansoria here on JAPAN Forward.