China empowers its coastguards to fire on foreign ships to prevent threats

China passed its coastguard legislation that for the first time explicitly allows it to fire on foreign vessels, a move that could stoke tensions with its neighbors in contested waters. China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee, passed the Coast Guard Law on Friday, according to state media reports. It comes two years after China’s military assumed control of the previously civilian maritime body in 2018. China has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.

The law, according to the draft released in November by the NPC, empowers the Chinese coastguard to use “all necessary means”, to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels. The bill allows coast guard personnel to demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.

Chinese coastguard ships have played a leading role in asserting China’s maritime claims, including in fishing disputes off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands and the stand-off with Vietnam over Vanguard Bank. Japanese diplomats have previously lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, Islands in the East China Sea.

Responding to concerns, Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the new law would clarify the functions and authority of the coastguard forces and that it was in line with international practice. Hua added that China will continue to manage its differences with Japan through dialogue.

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