NEW DELHI: China’s Coast Guard law authorising the firing on foreign vessels and destruction of structures on features it claims is “poorly timed because the Chinese appeared to want a fresh start with President Joe Biden,” says Robert A. Manning, Senior Fellow, Scowcroft Centre, Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “The law has received surprisingly little attention in the U.S.,” he told StratNews Global Associate Editor Amitabh P. Revi. “But with a group of very experienced Asia hands (in the Biden team), I expect they’re watching closely and I expect a response.” He added: “the law takes effect on the first of February, so we’ll have to see how it’s implemented but if China is serious about trying to restart the relationship (with the U.S.), they need to demonstrate a change in behaviour. Instead, they’re reinforcing all the negative actions they have taken. This really escalates an already dangerous situation in the South and East China Seas.” The law passed on January 22 legalises ‘all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations or individuals at sea’. It also authorises the coast guard to demolish other countries’ structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China and to seize or order foreign vessels illegally entering China’s territorial waters to leave.
A tribunal at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration “ruled very clearly in 2016 that Chinese claims are bogus and based on a big lie” reminded Manning, “yet they’re passing a law to protect the sovereignty of these claims. So, it sets itself up to almost guarantee an escalation of conflict.” The former U.S. State Department Official’s analysis is that the law gives “political cover to the Coast Guard to escalate what is a grey zone, up to the threshold”(in contrast to similar action taken by the PLA Navy and its repercussions). “China has the biggest Coast Guard in the region,” Manning explained, adding,” they have 500 ships, some of them are 12,000 tonnes. They’re almost destroyer-size and they have helicopters and so on. So, it’s ripe for incidental conflict.”
With the Biden administration starting to articulate its Indo-Pacific strategy, assuring Japan ‘the Senkaku islands are covered by Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and that the United States remains opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,’ the former U.S. National Intelligence Strategist pointed out that “Biden needs something from China to work with and they don’t seem to be giving it to him. I would expect that the U.S. and other like-minded countries would want to take this to the East Asia Summit and denounce the legality of the law, because it doesn’t have any standing based on the Law of the Sea treaty—UNCLOS.” Ironically, China has ratified UNCLOS while the U.S. hasn’t. “China is gradually turning up the temperature, Manning says, using the analogy of “the frog in boiling water”, adding, “how far they will go, we don’t know.”