China Ups the Ante in the South China Sea: How will the US React?

3 February 2021 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

China’s new law authorising its Coast Guard to use deadly force if required against foreign entities is likely a test for President Biden; it comes, however, with significant risk for Beijing, Washington and the region.

 

Background

China passed a law authorising the China Coast Guard’s (CCG’s) use of firepower under certain circumstances against foreign vessels in waters ‘under China’s jurisdiction’. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacted the law, which came into force on 1 February 2021, on 22 January. The law authorises the CCG to take ‘all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations and individuals at sea, or are facing an imminent danger of illegal infringement’. It also authorises the CCG to demolish ‘buildings, structures, and various fixed or floating devices’ from foreign organisations and individuals located ‘in the sea areas and islands under our jurisdiction’, if they have been established without Beijing’s permission.

Since the law specifically authorises the CCG to use force against foreign encroachments on its sovereignty, it may be safely assumed that those actions are to be taken in the South China Sea – at least in the first instance. That raises issues of international concern.

Comment

As the China Global Television Network notes:

The law, for the first time, makes clear the Chinese coast guard’s role in maritime security, administrative law enforcement, criminal investigation and international cooperation. It also regulates the use of police equipment and arms, and defines the limits of the authority and the means and procedures to carry out its role. … [T]he coast guard law provides legal guarantees for effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security and maritime rights and interests.

The obvious question that arises from reading the law is this: does the law apply to the maritime territory that is encompassed within China’s so-called nine-dash line? While that would appear to be the case, it would a complete dereliction of any claims China may put forward as complying with international law. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in a case brought by the Philippines against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea that Beijing’s claims in that domain were invalid and lacked legal standing. China, true to form, rejected that ruling and maintained its claim of sovereignty over around 80 per cent of that sea. The Court ruled, furthermore, that none of China’s holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone and that:

China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, one of the hundreds of reefs and shoals dotting the sea, and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank, another feature in the region.

In common perception, the white-painted vessels of a country’s coast guard perform a purely defensive function. Those vessels are not as aggressive or as menacing in appearance as their grey-hulled naval counterparts. China has sought to manipulate that perception to suit its own agenda. The ships of the CCG are the equivalent of naval frigates in all but name and may be easily modified to take on a military function. The CCG, moreover, has been placed under the control of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and militarised. It is likely that situation that led the US Department of Defence to note in its 2018 report on China’s military power that the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the China Coast Guard, and China’s maritime militia ‘form the largest maritime force in the Indo-Pacific’ and that all three branches of the Chinese navy ‘sometimes conduct co-ordinated patrols’.

As a consequence, the chief of the US navy, Admiral John Richardson, said that he told his Chinese counterpart, Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong, in January 2019 that:

Washington would not treat the coast guard or maritime militia – fishing boats that work with the military – differently from the Chinese navy, because they were being used to advance Beijing’s military ambitions.

The Chinese law caused the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin, Jr., to tweet:

After reflection I fired a diplomatic protest. While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one – given the area involved or for that matter the open South China Sea – is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law; which, if unchallenged, is submission to it.

Manila is worried that China has enacted legislation authorising its Coast Guard to use deadly force in a maritime region over which it cannot exercise sovereignty. That could lead to an eruption of violence and regional conflict. That concern is justified, given that the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, responded to Beijing’s intimidation by contacting Mr Locsin, assuring him that Washington would honour the defence agreement between the two countries. To ensure that China received the message and to demonstrate US power to the region, Mr Blinken tweeted:

I had a great conversation today with @teddyboylocsin. We’ll continue to build upon the strong U.S.-Philippine Alliance with our shared interests, history, values, and strong people-to-people ties. #FriendsPartnersAllies

Beijing likely had more than one objective in mind when it enacted the Coast Guard law. That it meant to give more teeth to the CCG is plainly obvious and likely also meant to engender the concern that Manila showed. It likely also sought a reaction from the newly-elected US president with whom General Secretary Xi has had a good relationship previously. It would have wanted to know if Mr Biden would continue the hard anti-China stance that his predecessor adopted or a more conciliatory one. It appears that, in conducting that test, Beijing has raised the stakes in the South China Sea.

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