While the world focused on the US presidential election, tensions in the East Sea have not been relieved as provocative actions from Beijing continued.
The Chinese Government has recently announced the draft Coast Guard Law, which is scheduled for passage this year. Although Beijing claims that the bill is intended to protect China's marine resources and fisheries, it is considered a signal for the increase of maritime encroachment cases made by Chinese vessels to the waters of coastal states in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) and East China Sea in the near future.
This bill was published on the website of the Chinese National People's Congress on November 4 for referendum until December 3.
Chinese Coast Guard’s presence to increase
Notably, Article 19 of the bill empowers the Chinese coast guard, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereignty and jurisdictional rights are illegal violated by foreign organizations or individuals at sea or face the danger of being infringed illegally. The bill also clarifies which weapons (hand-held), onboard or in the air, can be used in different situations.
Chinese coast guard vessels.
The bill also allows the Chinese Coast Guard to add artificial islands that China has illegally filled, renovated and built in the East Sea - including 7 entities in the Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands) and some entities in the Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands) of Vietnam – to the range of this force's protection, allowing them to participate in law enforcement on all exclusive economic zones, continental shelf and air.
The bill also allows this force to remove works built by foreign countries in waters under "management" of this force. In addition, the Chinese Coast Guard is permitted to confiscate and destroy foreign ships if they "illegally violate the waters" of China.
Information from Beijing said the bill was intended to allow the Chinese Coast Guard to increase its presence in the waters, so it will step up operations in the East Sea and East China Seas in the future.
This bill has been discussed at the China's National Assembly Standing Committee since mid-October and is likely to be passed by the Chinese National Assembly in December.
Japanese media said this is a dangerous step and a direct threat to the territorial security of Japan as well as some neighboring countries with China.
The Chinese Coast Guard was established in 2013, has been put into the armed police force and has been under the direction of the Central Military Commission since 2018. The draft bill stipulates that the Coast Guard force is allowed to perform defensive combat missions, an attempt to assert the role of this force as a paramilitary armed unit.
Gradually consolidating the Chinese navy – coast guard
This bill is also a step towards strengthening cooperation between the Chinese navy and coast guard. Experts have found that, in fact, the Chinese coast guard is gradually merging with the Chinese navy.
Under the revised Armed Police Forces law passed in June, the coast guard ships will join naval ships to participate in military operations during war. Even in peacetime, the coast guard will also participate in training and exercises, and rescue operations with the navy.
China's aim is to provide readiness and quickly transition from conventional maritime security protection to military operations during wartime. Currently, the head of the Chinese coast guard is a former naval general.
By the end of 2019, the number of patrol boats of the Chinese Coast Guard was about 130, doubling the number of vessels of the Japanese Coast Guard (66). Some Chinese coast guard ships of over 10,000 tons are equipped with 76mm guns.
A Chinese Coast Guard ship approaches Senkaku/Diaoyu. Photo: Japanese Coast Guard
This draft, if passed, would raise the risk of conflict in the Senkaku waters as it allows Chinese coast guard to use weapons on board to attack foreign ships that “infringe on China’s sovereignty”, according to Nikkei.
Beijing's move made Tokyo very concerned. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Office Katsunobu Kato said Japan is closely monitoring developments related to the Chinese Coast Guard force.
He emphasized that Tokyo will do its best to carry out warning and surveillance activities in the waters around Senkaku Islands, responding to China's moves calmly and resolutely, and on the other hand, it will continue to coordinate with other agencies to collect information on this case.
Bonnie Glaser, Manager of the China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies (USA), tweeted about this bill: “If true, this is pretty worrying as it will lead to increased violence in disputed waters."
This is also a "probing blow" of Beijing to the US’ new President and the new administration. The US-China competition is still going on fiercely on three fronts: trade war, technology war and the East Sea.
Observers said that the new US President's China policy will bear the imprint of the previous Obama administration and will not be "aggressive" with China as during the Trump era, so this will also be a "test" for the new US administration.
Responding to this move, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry’s deputy spokesman Duong Hoai Nam said: “As repeatedly affirmed, Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence to assert sovereignty over the two archipelagos of Truong Sa and Hoang Sa. Vietnam has always supported the settlement of disputes through peaceful negotiation, on the basis of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
On November 3, as the ASEAN chairman in 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam organized an online seminar between 10 Southeast Asian countries and China on the content "fair and humanitarian behavior for fishermen" and to make the issue a "priority of cooperation" between the two sides.
Although China has always said that it complies with international law and the UNCLOS and is willing to settle with the parties to maritime disputes with China by negotiation, China's actions in reality always go against its words.
“This is the time for China to give up the 9-dash line. This does not affect their interests,” said Dr. Li Nan, a research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, at a recent online seminar on the East Sea.
Many Americans went to the polls early to elect a new President and the results of the 2020 US presidential election will have great implications for the world geopolitical situation.