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China authorizes coast guard to fire on foreign vessels if needed


BEIJING - China passed a law on Friday that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, a move that could make the contested waters around China more choppy.

China has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea. It has sent its coast guard to chase away fishing vessels from other countries, sometimes resulting in the sinking of these vessels.

In August 2020, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest against China for confiscating fish aggregating devices installed by Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal off the country's southwestern waters.

Manila called the Chinese Coast Guard's action of taking away the devices, locally known as payao, as "illegal."

In a report in December 2020, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said it found that China continued to patrol the West Philippine Sea from December 2019 to November 2020, even increasing the frequency of its patrols in the Ayungin and Scarborough Shoals.

“There was at least one [Chinese coast guard] vessel, and often two, broadcasting [an Automatic Identification Signal] from the Scarborough Shoal on 287 of the last 366 days – a substantial increase from last year's 162 days,” the AMTI had reported.

The actions came even as the Chinese Coast Guard visited its counterpart in the Philippines in January 2020 "to strengthen cooperation and understanding regarding maritime law enforcement of the two countries."

The Philippine Coast Guard had said the port call aimed to enhance cooperation between the Philippines and China when it comes to patrol operations in a way that will not instigate provocation.

Coast Guard Law

China's top legislative body, the National People's Congress standing committee, passed the Coast Guard Law on Friday, according to state media reports.

According to draft wording in the bill published earlier, the coast guard is allowed to use "all necessary means" to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels.

The bill specifies the circumstances under which different kind of weapons - hand-held, ship borne or airborne - can be used.

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.

The bill also empowers the coastguard to create temporary exclusion zones "as needed" to stop other vessels and personnel from entering.

Responding to concerns, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the law is in line with international practices.

The first article of the bill explains that the law is needed to safeguard China's sovereignty, security and maritime rights.

This law comes seven years after China merged several civilian maritime law-enforcement agencies to form a coast guard bureau.

After the bureau came under the command of the People's Armed Police in 2018, it became a proper branch of the military forces. -Reuters

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