China Plans to Loosen its Coast Guard's Rules on Use of Force

China coast guard
China Coast Guard hull number 3303 defending a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel from Indonesian law enforcement, June 17, 2019 (Indonesian Navy Western Region Command)

Published Nov 11, 2020 2:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Chinese Communist Party has released a draft law that would empower China's coast guard to use force to defend Chinese-claimed waters and territories, including the use of arms against foreign vessels. The proposed law could potentially be applied in disputes in the South China Sea, where China's sweeping "nine-dash-line" claim conflicts with the maritime boundaries of other nations and with international law. 

The new rules would authorize Chinese maritime law enforcement personnel to use rifles if required by the circumstances of a perceived infraction, based on the "nature, degree and urgency" of the case and their own "reasonable judgement." It recommends directing fire at targets above the waterline "as much as possible." In the event of more serious or protracted non-compliance by the target vessel, the use of deck guns would be permitted. 

Infractions potentially justifying the use of force could include "illegal economic activity" or obstructing law enforcement in Chinese-claimed "jurisdictional waters." China claims sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, including areas hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland, and its law enforcement vessels regularly clash with foreign fishing vessels in disputed waters. 

“[China] is trying to tell other claimant governments that China means business,” U.S. Naval War College fellow Hunter Stires told the U.S.-funded outlet RFA. “This is a signal not to challenge China Coast Guard operations in waters that are rightfully the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian nations.”

The draft law's rules of engagement appear to continue the transition of the China Coast Guard into a quasi-military force, which has been under way for several years. In March 2018, the National People's Congress last week, delegates voted to put the China Coast Guard under the People's Armed Police Force. This military police division answers directly to the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission.

The state-run tabloid Global Times played down the significance of the draft law last week, accusing Western media of "creating trouble out of nothing" by airing concerns. In the same editorial, it reiterated Beijing's accusation that "the U.S. [Navy] violates Chinese sovereignty and security in the name of freedom of navigation," and raised the question of what Chinese forces should do if a "violating warship" does not leave Chinese-claimed waters.