BEIJING – China on Thursday passed legislation to strengthen the power of its maritime safety authorities, state-run media reported, sparking fears that tensions between the Asian nation and other countries, including Japan, will escalate in the nearby waters.
As Beijing claims that the Senkaku Islands, administered by Tokyo, in the East China Sea are part of its territory, the amendment of the Maritime Traffic Safety Law could target Japanese vessels navigating around the uninhabited islets, called Diaoyu in China.
In February, China also enforced a controversial law allowing its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in illegal activities in waters it claims do not obey orders, making Sino-Japanese relations fragile over maritime security.
The latest revision was passed at the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body. It is scheduled to be put into force on Sept. 1, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The legislation will enable China's maritime safety agency, which belongs to the transportation ministry, to order foreign vessels to leave what the nation claims as its territorial waters if it judges that they could threaten security.
The agency can also block overseas ships from intruding into the territorial waters if they do not fall under innocent passage under international law.
Recently, the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping has adopted a hard-line posture in the South and East China seas as part of its goal of making the Communist-led country a "maritime power."
China has frequently sent official vessels to waters around the Senkakus in an attempt to lay claim to them, while Washington and Tokyo have agreed that the islets fall under the scope of a Japan-U.S. security treaty.
Beijing argues that the Diaoyu Islands and its affiliated islets are its "inherent territory."
Late last year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would safeguard its sovereignty over the islands and justified its sending of official ships to the area, saying "unknown Japanese fishing vessels" had entered the waters of the islets.
In the early 2010s, Beijing and Tokyo were mired in a territorial row over the Senkakus. The dispute especially intensified after the Japanese government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda brought them under state control in September 2012.
Noda's decision fanned anti-Japanese protests across China, prompting many Chinese people to burn Japanese flags in opposition to Tokyo's nationalization of the islets.
In 2018, Japan and China marked the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which served as an incentive to forge better ties. Bilateral relations relatively improved by effectively shelving the territorial spat.
The enforcement of the coast guard law, however, has complicated ties between the two Asian powers again, as they have also been at odds over other issues such as China's alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and security challenges posed to Taiwan.
In April, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at their summit in Washington affirmed the significance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, irritating the Chinese government.
Beijing views Taiwan, the self-ruled, democratic island, as a renegade province awaiting reunification, if necessary by force.
Immediately after the summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned a senior official of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to lodge a protest against the agreement between Washington and Tokyo, a diplomatic source familiar with bilateral relations said.
"China has started to take a tougher attitude toward Japan," the source said, with Beijing announcing that the country is conducting military drills in the East China Sea for two days through Friday.
Beijing, meanwhile, has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the South China Sea, claiming sovereignty over almost the entire maritime area.
China has conflicting territorial claims with four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as Taiwan in the South China Sea.
U.S. warships have carried out "freedom of navigation" operations there in an apparent bid to counter Chinese claims and actions in the sea, a strategic waterway through which more than one-third of global trade passes.
Xi has instructed his People's Liberation Army to bolster exercises to seize islands in the nearby waters, sources close to the matter said.
Foreign affairs experts say that the move is a warning against the United States and other Western democratic countries that have been stepping up their involvement in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
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