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On Feb. 1, China’s new coast guard law went into effect. It allows the Chinese coast guard to fire upon vessels around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by both China and Japan, or ships around a number of reefs and islands in the South China Sea where Beijing has contested claims with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, among others. The new law could escalate tensions in the region, and Japan is now debating how to respond.

What is the structure of China’s coast guard?

A 2020 U.S. Department of Defense report notes that, over the past decade, China has more than doubled the number of large coast guard patrol ships over 1,000 tons, from about 60 in 2010 to more than 130 as of last year. That makes the Chinese coast guard, dubbed by some as China’s second navy, the largest in the world, the DOD says.

The majority of these new ships are equipped with not only helicopter facilities and water cannons but also 30 mm and 76 mm guns, which are often much bigger than the guns carried by the coast guard fleets of other countries. Some of these coast guard ships can also operate far away from the mainland Chinese coast, and for extended periods of time.

The Chinese coast guard can also call on 70 ships of more than 500 tons for more limited offshore operations, as well as over 400 coastal patrol craft and about 1,000 small boats that patrol river areas. But there are also two patrol cutters over 10,000 tons, making them the largest coast guard ships in the world.

For many years, the Chinese coast guard had been under the control of China’s State Oceanic Administration, a civilian body. That changed in 2018, when it was placed under the command of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military policymaking body, which is led by President Xi Jinping.

What does the new coast guard law allow and what is China’s justification for it?

If a Chinese coast guard patrol encounters a foreign vessel in waters claimed by China, it is now authorized to fire upon that vessel. In addition, the coast guard can now forcibly remove buildings constructed by other countries on territories claimed by China. The law outlines a series of steps the coast guard can take against a foreign vessel. These include police actions, such as the use of water cannons, handcuffs and tear gas to force a vessel to stop and be boarded.

China's Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, its top legislative body, passed the coast guard bill on Jan. 22 in Beijing. | XINHUA NEWS AGENCY / VIA KYODO
China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, its top legislative body, passed the coast guard bill on Jan. 22 in Beijing. | XINHUA NEWS AGENCY / VIA KYODO

The law allows the use of hand-held weapons when the Chinese coast guard believes a foreign vessel entering its claimed jurisdiction carries criminal suspects, illegally contains weapons, ammunition or vaguely defined materials related to state secrets, or when it refuses to comply with the initial order to stop.

Ship and airborne weapons can be deployed in three different cases: when conducting counterterrorism operations, dealing with serious violent incidents or after being attacked with weapons.

China’s position is that the new law streamlines operations and that being able to use force is common practice among the coast guards of other nations, including Japan and South Korea. In 2001, Japan authorized its coast guard to use weapons, including automatic cannons and machine guns, against unidentified vessels in Japanese waters that are trying to escape. South Korea passed a law in 2016 authorizing the use of handguns and water cannons against foreign ships illegally operating in its waters.

What has been Japan’s reaction to the law?

Like the Philippines and Vietnam, Japan has expressed grave concern over the new law, with senior members of the government including Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi saying it must not be applied in a way that violates international standards.

In December, as China was debating a draft of the new law, Toshinari Matsuo, director of the Operational Law Office at the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Maritime Command and Staff College, wrote that the new law went beyond the norms established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). That law says a coastal state may take the necessary steps against foreign vessels passing through its territorial waters if their passage is not innocent.

In addition, while China says its coast guard has a right to operate in areas under China’s jurisdiction, UNCLOS allows for limited functional jurisdiction outside territorial waters, but only where territorial sovereignty is internationally recognized and not, as is the case with the Senkakus or the South China Sea, where territorial sovereignty is disputed.

What could Japan do in terms of beefing up its own coast guard protection in the East China Sea area?

The United States, under new President Joe Biden, has reaffirmed previous U.S. policy that the Senkakus are covered under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

The Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture | KYODO
The Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture | KYODO

But in terms of coast guard protection, the Senkakus area is monitored by coast guard vessels and patrol aircraft from the Naha-based 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters. Last year, Japan spotted Chinese government vessels inside contiguous and territorial waters near the uninhabited Senkakus for a record 333 days. But the Naha-based coast guard station has a vast area of responsibility beyond the Senkakus that includes 160 islands, including 47 that are inhabited. There are four coast guard facilities on Okinawa Prefecture’s main island, as well as coast guard stations on the islands of Miyakojima and Ishigaki.

Current law states that if the coast guard encounters a number of foreign ships with weaponry they are not prepared to deal with, the defense minister could take police action by issuing a maritime safety operation declaration. That triggers the dispatch of the MSDF to the area. In addition, if armed foreign nationals illegally land on Japanese territory, such as a small island, the Japanese police and the coast guard are supposed to deal with it. If they cannot, the defense minister can declare a police operation for that case and dispatch the Ground Self-Defense Force to deal with intruders.

The problem, however, is the time lag between the initial response by coast guard patrols or prefectural police to a rapidly evolving security situation and the central government authorization followed by the dispatch and arrival on the scene of Self Defense Forces. A Cabinet decision is first needed for declarations to send in either the MSDF or GSDF.

To speed things up, the government introduced a system allowing that decision to be made by telephone in 2015. But with the passage of China’s coast guard law, there are questions about whether there would be enough time, under current laws, to respond to an armed attack.

In the past, there was some debate about changing the law to allow the SDF to respond, under specifically defined conditions, at the same time as the Japan Coast Guard or the police. Some members of the Liberal Democratic party have recently suggested that with the new Chinese coast guard law now in effect, that would be a good idea. But there is reportedly opposition within the transport ministry, which is in charge of the coast guard, as well as the National Police Agency.

The move could also be politically controversial, creating tensions between the immediate need to respond to a threat and the fear that sending in the armed forces could escalate the situation further. On Jan. 29, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said there were a variety of opinions within the LDP about how best to respond. But he also conveyed Japan’s strong concern over the law on Tuesday, also saying it violated international norms.

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