July 10, 2024 | Policy Brief

Newly Enforced Chinese Coast Guard Law Heightens Maritime Miscalculation Risks

July 10, 2024 | Policy Brief

Newly Enforced Chinese Coast Guard Law Heightens Maritime Miscalculation Risks

Beijing began enforcing a new protocol last month authorizing China’s Coast Guard to seize vessels operating within China’s claimed maritime borders, a move that coincided with several provocative incidents in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness greatly increases the potential for a near-term miscalculation and potential clashes with the United States and/or one of China’s neighbors.

In February 2021, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, approved the China Coast Guard Law (CCGL), codifying the Coast Guard’s role in protecting Beijing’s maritime interests. In May 2024, amidst growing regional angst over China’s expansionist claims over large swaths of the South and East China Seas, Beijing announced plans to implement one of the CCGL’s key provisions, known as Order #3, which explicitly authorizes the detention of “foreign vessels that illegally enter China’s territorial waters.”

The order applies to all areas under China’s so-called “jurisdiction,” a likely reference to China’s historical claims over nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea. A 2016 international tribunal invalidated such claims; however, Beijing rejected the ruling and continues operating in waters claimed by its neighbors, including Vietnam.

The CCGL does not specify under what conditions China’s Coast Guard is authorized to use force against foreign vessels. Such ambiguity, whether intentional or not, runs the risk of an armed altercation, particularly if such decisions are being made by inexperienced Coast Guard commanders or Chinese Communist Party commissars assigned to monitor Coast Guard units.

On June 17, only two days after Order #3 went into effect, Chinese Coast Guard vessels boarded Philippine Navy and Coast Guard ships en route to the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but claimed by China. During the encounter, Chinese personnel threatened Philippine sailors with swords, severing a Philippine sailor’s thumb in the process, and illegally towed several Philippine vessels away from the reef.

In response, Manila vowed to defend its sailors with “the same level of force” should Chinese Coast Guard personnel assault them again; however, doing so could potentially trigger the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between Washington and Manila. Under Article 4 of the MDT, each country is obligated to defend the other if the treaty is invoked following an “armed attack” by an aggressor nation.

In a second provocative move last week, China’s Coast Guard boarded a Taiwanese fishing boat operating just outside of Taipei-controlled waters near the Kinmen islands. After a brief but tense standoff between Chinese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels, Chinese authorities seized the Taiwanese fishing boat and forced it to berth at a mainland Chinese port. Two days later, in an additional show of force, China ordered more than 30 warplanes and nine naval vessels to encircle the self-governed island nation.

All told, China’s growing maritime belligerence and refusal to heed previous U.S. warnings demands a clear demonstration of Washington’s diplomatic and defense-related support for its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. For starters, Congress could dispatch multiple bipartisan delegations to Manila to meet with Philippine officials and witness China’s maritime provocations firsthand. Additionally, the House and Senate could consider introducing and passing a concurrent resolution supporting the Philippines’ claims over the Second Thomas Shoal and re-affirming Washington’s MDT commitments with Manila.

Meanwhile, the White House should take steps to clarify for China the potential for escalation if its provocations continue. One option is to have U.S. Coast Guard personnel accompany Philippine resupply missions in a purely advisory capacity. Doing so could deter Chinese officials from taking provocative actions against future Philippine missions, knowing it might provoke a strong response from Washington.

Craig Singleton is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Senior Director of FDD’s China Program, where Reece Breaux is an intern. For more analysis from Craig and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on X @CraigMSIngleton. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy