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Is China Getting More Aggressive Towards Japan After Enacting New Coast Guard Law?

Japan has alleged that Chinese coast guard vessels have repeatedly entered its territorial waters near the China-claimed Senkaku Islands since Beijing implemented a new law on February 1. China’s new coast guard law allows the use of weapons against foreign vessels.

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Japan’s 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters based in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, said that on Tuesday (February 16), Chinese vessels entered the Japanese waters for the seventh time this year. According to a Nikkei Asia report, the vessels that came on Tuesday joined the two other Chinese coast guard boats that had entered the waters Monday.

Japan lodged a strong protest against the repeated intrusions following Beijing’s enactment of the new law, which was passed on January 22 and came into effect from February 1 and has raised the concerns of maritime incidents and escalation.

Both China and Japan staked claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing is also in conflict with the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, among others over the South China Sea. The new law is likely to increase tensions between China and several Asian nations.

With the new law, China has empowered its coast guard to intrude into other nations’ territorial waters. China has also 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, according to the 2020 US Department of Defense report.

What the New Law Says

China’s new law lays down guidelines for its coast guard personnel. They can now fire upon vessels and forcibly remove buildings constructed by other countries on territories claimed by China.

Coast guards can use water cannons, handcuffs, and tear gas to force a vessel to stop and be boarded. In case, 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, the new law allows the use of hand-held weapons.

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

While there have been concerns regarding the new law, experts argue that the China Coast Guard (CCG) is both an administrative law enforcement agency and an armed force like maritime law enforcement agencies in many countries.

The United States Coast Guard is also a branch of the US armed forces and the largest advanced maritime law enforcement force in the world. It comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime and may be transferred to the command of the US Navy under special circumstances.

According to Yan Yan, director of the Research Centre of Oceans Law and Policy in the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, international law does not prohibit the use of force in law enforcement activities in disputed waters. “The use of force in such instances is different from the ‘force’ prohibited by the UN Charter,” she writes in South China Morning Post.

She points out that China’s coast guard law includes provisions on cooperation with foreign maritime law enforcement agencies and international organizations as well.

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