Long arm of China’s new maritime law risks sparking conflict with US and Japan

That might seem like a pretty reasonable request, especially if the ship is carrying dangerous goods, that is, until you consider what constitutes “Chinese territorial waters”.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over large swaths of the South China Sea, under its widely disputed and far-reaching Nine-Dash Line, as well as disputed islands in the East China Sea.

To ask the question, will China attempt to enforce the new law in disputed seas? If so, Pacific powers like Japan and the United States will certainly not comply. And in such a scenario, the question quickly becomes, how will China react?

Since September 1, five types of foreign ships – submersibles, nuclear-powered ships, ships carrying radioactive materials, ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas or other toxic substances, as well as apparently all “vessels that may endanger China’s maritime traffic safety” – will be required by law to provide detailed information to state authorities about entering “Chinese territorial waters”, according to a note released by Chinese maritime security authorities last Friday.

However, the regulations lack detail and Western analysts say they come close to countering the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which guarantees that a coastal state will not impede the right of passage of foreign ships s ‘they don’t threaten a nation’s security. .

“It looks like part of China’s strategy of casting legal nets over areas it claims…to ‘normalize’ these claims,” ​​said Robert Ward, senior researcher for Japan Security Studies at the London International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Enforcement will be difficult, but that may matter less to Beijing than the slow buildup of what it sees as legal ground,” Ward said.

The new regulations are the second such case where Beijing is trying to provide legal justification for its maritime reach this year, following a law introduced in February that allows China’s coast guard to use weapons to protect the national sovereignty of China, an action previously reserved for units. of the People’s Liberation Army.

The primary focus of China’s two new legal claims is widely seen as the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely as its sovereign territory, despite overlapping claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, from Indonesia and Taiwan.

The Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard in the Pacific, Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, on Friday called the new law “very concerning,” telling CNN that if implemented, it “starts to lay the foundation for the future.” ‘instability and potential conflict’ in the South China Sea. .

The United States has shown a fierce reluctance to comply with China’s demands in the region, regularly carrying out freedom of navigation operations, which challenge Beijing’s claims to disputed islands. During a speech in Singapore in July, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pushed back against what he described as China’s illegitimate claims to the vast, resource-rich waterway.
But the most unstable area may be in the East China Sea, and the waters around the Senkaku Islands under Japanese control, claimed by China as Diaoyus.

“Exercising coastal states’ rights is an important step in substantiating sovereignty through practice,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of warfare and strategy at King’s College London. “But in spaces like the waters around the Senkaku Islands, strict enforcement of these navigation rules will inevitably lead to a clash with the coastguard authorities of competing claimants like Japan.”

And, looking at the numbers, the forces that could precipitate a clash have been in place almost consistently this year.

According to the Japanese Coast Guard, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have visited Japanese territorial waters – within 12 nautical miles of Japanese land – 88 times this year. In the contiguous zone – the waters between the islands but not within 12 miles of the shore – there were 851 Chinese incursions, according to the Japanese coastguard.

But China says its coastguard vessels only patrol its waters around its Diaoyu Islands. According to Beijing, the Japanese boats are the intruders and China would be within its rights to use force to get rid of them.

The Japanese Air Force faces a

“If the vessel is military and enters Chinese territorial waters without notice, it will be considered a serious provocation, and the Chinese military will take over to dispel or take even stronger measures to punish the invaders,” the official said. Global Times, state-owned. Nationalist tabloid reported this week, citing a Chinese military expert.

China has intensified legal pressure on the Senkakus since 2013, when it declared them to be part of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), with requirements similar to the latest Maritime Security Administration rules. And that the ADIZ did not give rise to armed clashes.

But, as many analysts point out, combat often comes by mistake, not by careful planning. A field commander eager to show his courage, an erroneous order or miscommunication, a mechanical breakdown of a ship or aircraft – anything could be a spark that ignites a conflict.

And with the current state of belligerent rhetoric between China and Japan, and its ally the United States, once the shots are fired, it might be hard to back down.