On February 1, a new law granting the China’s Coast Guard (CCG) the ability to use lethal force against foreign vessels in waters China claims went into effect.

The law worries countries that have territorial disputes with China, especially Japan, where the chief concern is that it could lead to the use of force against Japanese vessels around the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

Hundreds of Chinese vessels, including Coast Guard and Navy ships, routinely enter the waters around those islands, sometimes behaving aggressively, as part of China’s gray-zone operations.

Last year, Chinese vessels were spotted around the Senkakus for a record-setting 333 days, including 111 consecutive days of continuous Chinese presence.

A Worrying New Law

chinese coast guard
A China Coast Guard ship in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, December 22, 2015. (Reuters)

The part of the law that causes the most anxiety is Article 22, which authorizes the CCG to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”

Article 20 of the law authorizes the CCG to demolish “buildings, structures, and various fixed or floating devices” built by foreigners “in the sea areas and islands under our jurisdiction.”

The provisions are not unprecedented. Many coast guards and maritime security agencies operate with similar rules. Indonesia and Malaysia routinely sink foreign fishing vessels (some of them Chinese) in their waters. Even Argentina has fired on and sunk Chinese fishing vessels operating in its waters illegally.

The use-of-force clauses are also a small part of the law, which has 84 articles and is primarily intended to clarify the CCG’s role amid China’s numerous military reforms. China previously had up to five different maritime organizations and has been working to merge them.