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Politics & Security

China’s New Coast Guard Law Disrupts Maritime Order

Alarm is growing about the burgeoning threat posed by Chinese maritime incursions in Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands and in other parts of the region. How should Japan address this threat?

Takushi Ohashi

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China’s new Coast Guard Law took effect Monday, providing new powers to the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), including permission to use military force. 

Observers see it as an attempt by the Chinese government to present a legal justification both at home and abroad for its use of the Coast Guard to assert territorial claims in wide swaths of the South China Sea and East China Sea, and pave the way for stepping up such activities. 

Against the backdrop of rising concern about Chinese maritime expansionism, voices are growing stronger within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for new legislation to deal with the threat.

The new Chinese Law expressly expands the authority of the Chinese Coast Guard, which is an arm of that nation’s military. However, foreign experts say that, by extending the scope of that authority to the East China Sea and the entire South China Sea, the measure could destroy the international maritime order.

Related Read: China Coast Guard’s Militarization Directly Impacts Stability Around the Senkakus

The new law explicitly empowers the Chinese Coast Guard to use force “to take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.” 

The CCG is also authorized to chase off or monitor foreign vessels suspected of engaging in activities which violate Chinese law.

Threat to Japanese Fishermen in Japanese Waters

Japan fears that the new law will target Japanese fishing vessels and patrol boats operating in waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

Of special concern is the inclusion of “Chinese administered areas” within the scope of the law’s mandate. China has claimed expansive and vague maritime areas that might fall within the scope of the law as maritime areas subject to Chinese jurisdiction, including domestic waters, territorial waters, adjacent waters, waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and “maritime areas under Chinese jurisdiction and other waters” which would include the continental shelf. 

The very vagueness of this formulation allows Beijing to interpret as it will on a case-by-case basis.  

Within whatever waters China claims, the Chinese Coast Guard is now authorized to declare “maritime extraordinary alert zones” when deemed necessary.  The CCG may then use Chinese law to limit or prohibit ships from entering such an area. 

RELATED: Fishermen on Senkaku Islands: Why Do Japanese Have to Withdraw From Japanese Territory?

Wolf Warrior Tactics

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asserted on Friday that the law is “in line with international practices.”

The same law states that if so ordered by the Central Military Commission (CMC) ー the highest organ of the Chinese military ー the Coast Guard has the “duty to conduct defensive combat operations, etc.” 

This shows the urgency with which Beijing is seeking to make the Coast Guard its “second navy,” a trend which began in earnest in 2018 when it was incorporated into the People’s Armed Police (PAP), which is also under the CMC. 

Observers also believe that the adoption of the new law by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on January 22, just after Joe Biden took over in the United States, is designed to limit the fledgling administrations options. They also expect that in March the NPC will follow up on the Coast Guard Law with further legislation designed to spur Beijing’s maritime expansion. 

Senkaku Islands Increasingly Under Threat

A meeting of Japan’s National Security Council (NSC) convened on January 29 discussed how to beef up Tokyo’s defensive posture in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. 

Alarm is growing about the burgeoning threat posed by Chinese incursions in the area. However, it is hard to formulate an effective response under current law since the situation falls in the “gray zone incidents” column. In other words, neither an emergency nor normal times. 

RELATED: China Rapidly Dwarfing Japan in Naval Power, Would Establish Superiority in a Senkakus Showdown

Increasingly, sentiment within the LDP favors new legislation to correct the shortcoming.  

Last year Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered waters near the Senkaku Islands during a record-breaking 333 days. Faced with these repeated violations of Japanese territorial waters, Japan’s Coast Guard (JCG) has been forced to establish a full-time system for warning and monitoring these vessels. 

Normally, the JCG would have sole responsibility for guarding Japan’s territorial waters, but in certain cases it might prove no match for its Chinese counterpart due to the large number of intruding vessels as well as their superior size and equipment. In such a situation, Tokyo could order Self-Defense Force vessels to engage in security operations.

As things now stand, if activists or armed groups were to illegally land on Japanese territory, it would be treated solely as a matter for the police to handle. Should they not be able to handle the situation, then the government could order the dispatch of Ground Self-Defense Force troops. Such a response, however, could prove difficult if there was a time lag in the response of the GSDF even while the situation continued to escalate. 

Gaps in Japan’s System

A Cabinet order is required for Japan’s military forces to be dispatched for maritime security activities or deployment to maintain public order. 

In 2015 the government sought to respond to the “gray zone problem” by introducing a system for Cabinet approval by telephone. However, an LDP source says, “In light of this (Chinese) Coast Guard Law, China is now in the position to take advantage of gaps in the system.”

China’s new Coast Guard Law specifically states that its Coast Guard has the duty to pursue defense operations if so ordered by the CMC, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party headed by Xi Jinping. 

A former Defense Agency chief explains, “This means that with one order in the bat of an eye and law enforcement agency would be transformed into a military.”

There is also the possibility that heavily armed PAP troops could embark on Chinese Coast Guard vessels. It is doubtful that Japan’s Coast Guard and police could match them in strength.

Contemplating Japan’s Border Security

That gives impetus to proponents of a new “Border Security Law” in LDP circles. The hope is to eliminate any time lag in the SDF moving to back up the Japan Coast Guard and the police by authorizing SDF units to engage in maritime security and public order operations during peacetime in certain limited situations even before receiving a Cabinet order.

Actually, on several occasions in the past there has already been discussion of establishing such a legal framework, but the idea never came to fruition. According to government sources, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, which oversees the JCG, has been strongly opposed to allowing the SDF to take the lead before the Coast Guard or police. 

In discussing Japan’s possible responses to China’s Coast Guard Law at a January 29 news conference, Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi said, “I would like to see opinion within the LDP and the various relevant agencies harmonized, so that we can establish an appropriate stance.”

However, such a possibility in the short term was quickly dismissed by LDP sources, with one party veteran opining, “That will be far from easy.”

(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Takushi Ohashi (Tokyo) and Shohei Mitsuka (Beijing)