China will not be able to enforce its Law on Maritime Traffic Safety in South China Sea

A Chinese coast guard ship

China issues new maritime law

China recently introduced a new maritime law that requires ships carrying certain types of cargo to provide detailed information to Chinese authorities when passing through. their territorial waters. This move is still part of China’s “classic” action of wanting to “make law” in international waters, where it has territorial disputes with other Southeast Asian countries.

In early 1992, China also enacted a law requiring foreign military ships to have a permit issued by China to pass through China’s “territorial waters” and submarines when passing through such “territorial waters” must float on the water, and ships carrying hazardous materials need to have the required documents. In January 2021, China passed a new Law on Maritime Traffic and in April 2021, China passed the Law on Maritime Traffic Safety. Now, according to the Global Times (China), foreign ships – including submersibles and nuclear ships, ships carrying radioactive materials, oil, chemicals, liquefied natural gas and other substances other harmful substances – “are required to provide detailed information when passing through what China calls its ‘territorial waters‘.” Beijing is increasingly ambiguous in its moves. Correspondingly, the future of the South China Sea dispute is increasingly unpredictable.

Some experts believe that the revised Law on Maritime Traffic Safety that China has just announced is difficult to be implemented, and countries that dispute or challenge China’s claims at sea are likely to defy this provision as has been in response to the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that Beijing claims over the East China Sea. However, according to many experts, China’s move this time is much more dangerous than declaring an ADIZ in the East China Sea.

ADIZ is virtually unenforceable in the East China Sea

In 2013, China announced an ADIZ in the East China Sea, asserting that foreign aircraft, even in international airspace, must notify Chinese authorities. An ADIZ is an airspace assigned by a country to itself and requires that all civilian aircraft entering this zone be identified and subject to the control of that country. However, the ADIZ is not specified by any international treaty and is not considered a national territorial airspace. Therefore, shooting down an aircraft entering the ADIZ is an illegal and inhuman act, not to mention that there are always navigation devices on planes, so if an aircraft is shot down, it is not difficult to determine. The location of the downed aircraft is in the airspace of the country that shot down the plane. In addition, the fact that China shot down an aircraft that it thought was infiltrating its ADIZ, especially a civilian aircraft, would have catastrophic consequences for people and property, and would be criticized international vehement, may even lead to military action by the country whose plane was shot down. Therefore, until now China has done almost nothing in the implementation of the ADIZ in the East China Sea.

The risk of China sinking civilian ships in the East Sea

However, it is different from shooting at civilian aircraft in the sky. It is quite different to open fire on a ship that China considers trespassing in its territorial waters. Earlier this year, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China approved the Law on the Coast Guard, which will officially take effect from February 2021. The dangerous act has given China’s Coast Guard the power to open fire on other countries’ ships in some cases in areas claimed by Beijing, a move that has drawn fierce criticism. reverberation of the international community.

In the past, there were many Vietnamese fishing boats that were fired by Chinese law enforcement ships, causing a lot of loss of life and property. Therefore, it can be seen that it is likely that civilian ships of countries including Vietnam, especially fishing boats, do not comply with China’s requirements on declaring information when entering waters where the country’s waters are unknown. This blatant claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea will become a target for Chinese Coast Guard ships to threaten to use force or even fire warning shots, or more seriously, to sink. Meanwhile, some Vietnamese fishing boats often turn off cruise monitoring devices when fishing at sea. If these fishing boats are fishing in waters claimed by China, they will easily become targets for shooting and sinking.

Compared to shooting down a civilian aircraft in the sky in the ADIZ that China claims to set up over the East China Sea, shooting down a civilian ship in waters such as the East China Sea or the South China Sea, would be pose less of a risk, because the loss of life when a civilian plane is shot down is uncontrollable, while the Coast Guard can completely limit the loss of life in case they opened fire on a civilian ship at sea. Therefore, the Coast Guard will not be afraid to open fire on a civilian ship in the waters that China has defiantly turned into its “home pond.”

The strategy of “silkworms eating strawberries at sea

As can be seen, China’s requirement for foreign ships to declare information when entering “Chinese waters” is another example of China’s gradual escalation of maritime jurisdiction, especially in the South China Sea. This move is part of China’s strategy of “worms eating strawberries at sea” under which Beijing maintains a constant stream of small actions that are not enough to create an event that causes war, but over time turn the undisputed waters into contested waters, and turning disputed waters into so-called “Chinese territorial waters.”

This tactic gradually leads to strategic transformations in Beijing’s favor. By means of such stealthy means of aggression under the “strawberry-eating mulberry” strategy, China is conspiring to significantly limit the options of rival claimant countries to disrupt Beijing’s containment plans and make it difficult for them to respond appropriately or effectively.

Most experts on the South China Sea believe that China’s new claim will inevitably face great challenges and difficulties from countries that have disputes with China in the South China Sea and countries with related interests in the South China Sea, including Western countries led by the US. These countries will not follow China’s rules, because they will have to suffer great consequences if they let China turn the South China Sea into its “home pond.” However, China’s new request is really a big challenge for countries that have disputes in the South China Sea with China, like Vietnam. Because Vietnamese ships, if they comply with China’s requirements in the waters under Vietnam’s sovereignty, but are greedy for disputes by China, will invisibly accept China’s de facto control. In that sea, and in case of refusal, Vietnamese ships are easy to become targets of attack by the Chinese Coast Guard. (Translated)


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