On its surface, the situation in the South China Sea has not changed much compared to that before the passage of China’s Coast Guard Law, which took effect on February 1, 2021. China is still using grey zone tactics to scare away fishers and harass resource exploration projects from other territorial claimants in the South China Sea. However, the picture of the South China Sea is much grimmer than it may seem.

For over a decade, China has implicitly indicated that it does not need to wage war to achieve its goals. Beijing has opted for a slow intensity conflict approach or low-intensity coercion by which China uses incremental steps to expand its de facto control over disputed territories. Beijing has used the South China Sea as a ground to test and refine its coercive policy toward smaller claimants. These policies can be duplicated and enacted by China elsewhere, including its disputes in the East China Sea.

The process can also work in reverse. China’s current modus operandi in the South China Sea has some telling similarities with what it has already done with Hong Kong’s security. First it passed a national security law applicable to Hong Kong, and then it only later added muscles to enforce the law. We do not know when China will begin its militarized use of force in the South China Sea.

China’s newly passed coast guard legislation authorizes its maritime law-enforcement fleets to use lethal force on foreign ships operating in China’s waters, including the disputed waters claimed by China since Article 3 stipulates that “the CCG Organization shall conduct law enforcement operations in the waters under the jurisdiction of China and in the airspace above the waters under the jurisdiction of China and apply this Law.” State Department spokesperson Ned Price has stated that “allowing the coastguard to destroy other countries’ economic structures and to use force in defending China’s maritime claims in disputed areas, strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbours”. Indeed, the new law is applied to the disputed waters and will likely be invoked in the conflict within the area. Most of China’s disputed claims to offshore resources in the South China Sea were rejected by the United States due to their unlawfulness in Mike Pompeo’s statement in July of last year.

The legislation is a clear violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Most of the countries that stand to be affected have been expressing their anxiety and opposing China’s new Coast Guard Law, as it has exacerbated tensions in the South and East China Sea disputes and affects the interests of other claimants such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Indonesia.

Japan has expressed concern over China’s law since the early stages of its drafting, due to the tense situation with China in the East China Sea and the dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Toshinari Matsuo, director of the Operational Law Office at the Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Maritime Command and Staff College, stated that China’s new law went beyond the norms included in UNCLOS. Meanwhile, Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s envoy in the United States, warned about China’s actions following the ratification of its new coast guard law. Hsiao also affirmed Taiwan’s support for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, indicating that it remains committed to fight against the violation of international norms. Vietnam has also asserted countries’ obligations to comply with international maritime laws and treaties, particularly UNCLOS. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang has appealed for peace and stability in the South China Sea without unnecessary instigation of tensions.

Nevertheless, countries with interests in disputed areas and those in support of international law will need to do more than what they have done in recent years. Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s foreign minister, and Commandant Takahiro Okushima of the Japan Coast Guard, expressed Japan’s serious concern over a potential landing on the Senkaku Islands by Chinese coastguard ships, saying Japan would be as well prepared as possible. Indeed, Japan has been strengthening its military’s capabilities gradually in response to the Chinese threat. The Japan Coast Guard plans to acquire 12 more large patrol vessels by 2023. The Philippines has also committed to reinforce its naval assets in order to face the future presence of China’s coastguard. In response to the passage of China’s law, the country’s military chief, Cirilito Sobejana, declared that the Philippine Navy would increase deployments to the South China Sea in order to ensure the security of its fishers and people.

China’s bullying tactics are most effective when the target state is deeply polarized or lacks the capacity to resist Chinese aggressive behavior. Without well-coordinated collaboration to counter China’s aggressive policies over the past decade, the South China Sea has almost reached the point where China can freely impose what it wants on this international body of water.

In response to the situation, the United States is reinforcing its alliance commitments to Japan and the Philippines, and sending its own coastguard to establish a presence in the region. In the phone call between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the United States reaffirmed its defense treaty with Japan, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Biden himself have confirmed applies to the Senkakus. Along with the United States and Japan, India and Australia have become more engaged than ever in the regional security environment through the Quad. Taiwan has welcomed the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthen relations and increase defense sales. Vietnam must also confront the limits of its hedging strategy and the risks of dealing with China alone. Partnerships and alliances have been galvanized by concerns over China’s behavior, and the list of security partners may soon expand as China accelerates it maritime militarization.

About Nguyen Thanh Trung

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is the director of Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His areas of interest include security issues, political economy, comparative politics, and international relations. He is fluent in both English and Chinese.