China has enacted a new law that spells out the operational authority of the China Coast Guard in the country's surrounding waters. If a foreign ship in China's territorial waters does not follow the coast guard's orders, authorities are now permitted to use weapons. With this new law in place, governments in Asia and beyond must be vigilant about the risk of unforeseen contingencies occurring around the Senkaku Islands -- which China claims and calls the Diaoyu -- and in the South China Sea.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the coast guard has been incorporated into the People's Armed Police and placed under the command of the military. As the coast guard receives orders from the Central Military Commission -- the highest decision-making body in China's armed forces -- governments elsewhere should note that it is a quasi-military organization.
The China Coast Guard also has a broader remit than the Japan Coast Guard. Its authority extends to "areas of jurisdiction," which include China's territorial waters and contiguous zone, as well as the airspace above them. It can also forcibly remove buildings erected by foreign countries on islands in waters claimed by China. It would be extremely difficult for the Japan Coast Guard alone to deal with the larger and better-equipped Chinese government ships if they were to use force in the waters around the Senkakus and elsewhere.
The intent behind China's new law should not be overlooked. Last year, Xi directed authorities to accelerate the implementation of laws related to foreign affairs. He called for the protection of national sovereignty and core interests through legislation and law enforcement. The new coast guard law is part of that push.
China has been forcefully implementing land reclamation in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In 2016, an international tribunal determined that China's "nine-dash line" claim had no basis in international law, and that its land reclamation activities were illegal. China, which continues to reject the ruling, wants to gradually turn the situation to its advantage while using domestic laws to implement various measures not permitted under international law.
It is important that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reaffirmed with U.S. President Joe Biden that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which obliges the U.S. to defend territories under Japanese administrative control, applies to the Senkaku Islands.
Japan and the U.K., meanwhile, shared strong concerns about the implementation of China's new law at videoconferences between the two countries' foreign and defense ministers. These governments should also seek international cooperation with the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
Tokyo conveyed its strong concern about the law at a recent high-level meeting on maritime issues with Chinese officials, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said, "The coast guard law must not be applied in a way that contravenes international law."
There are growing calls within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party for new legislation that will enable authorities to quickly address "gray zone situations," which do not fit cleanly as either peacetime circumstances or emergencies. The government must urgently consider measures to deal with all possible situations.