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China Seen Increasing Control in Disputed Asian Sea with Revised Maritime Law

In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, members of the Philippine Coast Guard use rubber boats as they patrol beside Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, April 14, 2021.
In this handout photo provided by the Philippine Coast Guard, members of the Philippine Coast Guard use rubber boats as they patrol beside Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, April 14, 2021.

Analysts are raising concerns that a Chinese update to its maritime traffic law will help Beijing tighten control over disputed Asian seas by legalizing interception of foreign vessels and authorizing fines against their operators.

The standing committee of the National People's Congress voted April 29 to amend the Maritime Traffic Safety Law, state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

The revised law, as spelled out clause-by-clause in the Xinhua report, says foreign vessels passing through waters under Chinese jurisdiction should obtain permission first. China’s State Council and other government departments may take “necessary measures” to stop the passage of foreign ships into “territorial waters,” the law says. It cites traffic safety and environmental protection as reasons.

Ship’s crews under the law are to do their part to protect the marine environment and captains will be responsible for emergency responses to anyone on board suspected of having an infectious disease, Xinhua added.

Violators of the law can be fined up to about $47,000.

Chinese officials probably intend to use the law selectively to make foreign vessels leave the contested South China Sea or discourage them from getting near it, experts say. China already uses its coast guard, fishing fleets and island-building activity to fortify its claim over 90% of the sea.

“I just see this as a continuing part of China’s policy of asserting its sovereign jurisdiction over the South China Sea, constantly putting pressure on claimant states and trying to drive a wedge between them and the U.S.,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that stretches from Hong Kong south to Borneo. The waterway is rich in fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves.

U.S. warships passed into the sea 10 times last year to reflect Washington’s view that the sea is open internationally, irritating China each time. The United States has no claim in the sea, but analysts say the Southeast Asian states and Taiwan look to Washington for support as its superpower rival China expands its navy.

More broadly, Chinese leaders see the revised law as part of a “salami slicing” strategy to assert South China Sea claims, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. They will invoke the law “selectively” and in “some cases” against Southeast Asian vessels, he forecast.

Beijing has increasingly turned to domestic laws to bolster its offshore interests. The government bans fishing in the northern part of the disputed sea in the middle of each year to protect fishing stocks, for example, and in January it approved a Coast Guard Law that authorizes firing on foreign vessels. Chinese authorities have boarded foreign boats before, Thayer said.

“Increasingly China will use domestic laws to enforce its internal jurisdiction within the South China Sea,” Vuving said.

China, which cites historical records to ground its maritime claims, landfills small islets for military use to bolster its claims further. Fishing fleets from Vietnam and the Philippines use much of the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam tap the same waterway for undersea energy reserves.

Revisions to the maritime safety law will add support for Chinese claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where the government contests a chain of islets with Japan and Taiwan, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank.

Any effort to “support legitimacy” by stopping foreign-registered boats, however, will increase friction with the rival claimants, he said.

“I don’t think they are going to deliberately stop foreign ships, but they certainly will calculate risks and interests in order to conduct [the] necessary measures,” Yang said.