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Editorial: China’s new coast guard law appears designed to intimidate

Last month, China enacted legislation that empowers its coast guard, turning it into a virtual second navy. Beijing insists that new capabilities are needed to protect national territory and interests. From any other perspective, the changes look like intimidation.


Japan must respond with more than diplomatic protests. The government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must blunt the Chinese move while demonstrating its understanding of the risks involved. It must protect Japanese interests while working to set up communications mechanisms and protocols to lessen the chances of confrontation, crisis and escalation.


China’s coast guard was originally a branch of the People’s Armed Police (PAP). In 2013, it became an independent civilian organization and its status was upgraded yet again in 2018 when it was transferred back to the PAP and made a military suborganization under the Central Military Commission. At that time, the China Coast Guard was already, according to the United States Department of Defense, “by far the largest coast guard force in the world.”


It had more than 130 vessels of 1,000 tons or more in 2019, more than doubling the number of 2010, and the majority of those ships have helicopter facilities, high-capacity water cannons and guns ranging from 30 mm to 76 mm. Its inventory includes more than 70 fast patrol combatants (more than 500 tons), more than 400 coastal patrol craft and some 1,000 inshore and riverine patrol boats. The U.S anticipates that China’s coast guard will likely add another 25-30 patrol ships and patrol combatants by the end of the decade.


The new legislation allows those capabilities to be put to worrying use. This law allows Chinese coast guard vessels to use all necessary measures, including weapons, against violations of “areas of jurisdiction,” which includes territorial waters, the contiguous zone and the airspace above them. Its vessels now have the right to forcibly remove foreign ships from those areas as well as remove buildings erected by foreign countries on islands in waters claimed by China.


This is consistent with other national coast guard enabling authorities. What is troubling is that the scope of China’s jurisdiction is not clearly defined, and we know enough to be concerned. Beijing has claimed that it includes all waters within the nine-dash line that encircles the South China Sea and includes the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call Diaoyu), which China also claims.


China has long pressed Japan on that territory — last year more than 1,100 Chinese government ships entered the contiguous zone around the islands, a record, on 333 days — but the presence has grown since the law was passed. During February, 14 Chinese marine patrol vessels entered Japanese waters 14 times, more than twice the number of January and the most in four and a half years. The ships were tracking Japanese fishing boats and were telling them to leave the waters.


The Japanese government has protested through diplomatic channels every time a Chinese vessel has entered Japanese waters. Chinese government officials dismiss the complaints. China’s Ministry of Defense explained this week that “The patrol and law enforcement activities by Chinese public service vessels in waters of the Diaoyu Islands are legitimate and lawful” and pledged to continue to make them a regular activity.


Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi criticized the new coast guard law for being “ambiguous,” “problematic” and a potential violation of international law. That may be true, but it is not enough. The Japanese government must prepare for a concerted Chinese campaign to first challenge Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands and then to assert control over them. This requires more than beefing up the Japan Coast Guard’s presence in those waters.


First, Tokyo must update coast guard legal authorities to allow its vessels to fire warning shots or engage intruders. Rules of engagement must also be amended so that captains know when and how to use that new capacity to act. Second, the size of Chinese vessels means that Japan’s coast guard may be outgunned or overwhelmed. Coordination with the Maritime Self-Defense Forces is therefore a must. There must be a new approach to maritime security.


Third, the Japanese government must raise international awareness of the seriousness of the changes in the Chinese law. Prime Minister Suga did just that when he raised the subject at a recent virtual G7 leaders meeting. The U.S. Department of State has criticized the law, underscoring that it was joining Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries in doing so.


Finally, Japan must ensure that there is an actual dialogue with China so that Beijing understands the depth of Japanese concern and so the two governments can figure out ways to ensure that their maritime forces do not blunder into a clash. The two countries’ maritime forces are going operating in increasing proximity, with the possibility of a crash or a clash increasing in tandem. Communications protocols and rules of engagement are required to diminish the chances of a confrontation and to ensure that when there is an incident it can be resolved peacefully.


Unfortunately, there is no indication that China is willing to work with Japan to do so. China is more interested in increasing its capacity to project its power. If neighbors are intimidated or threatened as a result that appears to be a feature rather than a bug. That is a recipe for crisis.


The Japan Times Editorial Board

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