PRC’s new maritime traffic law ‘a time bomb’ for regional stability

PRC’s new maritime traffic law ‘a time bomb’ for regional stability


Indo-Pacific allies and partners have swiftly dismissed as invalid the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) new law authorizing its maritime forces to regulate foreign vessels in disputed territorial waters.

Analysts said the regulation, which took effect September 1, 2021, is yet another attempt by the PRC to stake expansive maritime claims in the East and South China seas by ignoring international law and treaties. Under the amendment toChina’s Maritime Traffic Safety Law, “operators of submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials and ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas and other toxic and harmful substances” must provide details about their visits to Chinese-claimed waters, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

The information sought includes a vessel’s call sign, position, next port of call and estimated arrival.

“This looks like part of China’s strategy of casting legal nets over areas that it claims … to ‘normalize’ these claims,” Robert Ward, senior fellow for Japanese security studies at The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told CNN. “Enforcement will be difficult, but this may matter less for Beijing than the slow accumulation of what it sees as a legal underpinning.”

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) limits a coastal state’s territorial waters to 12 nautical miles and states that “ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.”

The PRC, which is a signatory to the 1982 treaty, claims historic rights to much of the South China Sea — a vital trade route rich in natural resources — based on its so-called nine-dash line. Those claims are disputed by neighboring nations, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and were largely rejected by an international tribunal in 2016.

Still, the PRC has persisted with bellicose tactics, including attempting to extend its territorial waters by creating artificial islands and fortifying them with military installations. Chinese vessels have been accused of ramming and sinking other nations’ vessels, hindering natural resource exploration in disputed waters and encroaching on the exclusive economic zones of other South China Sea claimants.

In early 2021, the PRC gave its coast guard expanded power to use force against foreign vessels accused of encroaching on China’s jurisdiction. As with the coast guard regulation, observers say, the PRC appears to have crafted the maritime traffic amendment with ambiguity to apply it subjectively, without regard for international norms.

“In other words, China’s new law is a form of lawfare designed to elevate Chinese domestic law above international law and bolster China’s claim to ‘indisputable sovereignty,’” Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales Canberra, told the Vietnamese newspaper VnExpress.

The amendment is “a time bomb, which can explode at any time Beijing wants, increasing the risk of disputes and collisions at sea,” the Vietnam Times news agency reported.

Allies and partners have responded to the PRC’s maritime aggression with condemnations, diplomatic protests and freedom of navigation operations in support of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

States “should strictly comply with international treaties of which they are a member,” Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said September 1, according to the ministry. “Vietnam resolutely and persistently takes measures in accordance with international law to enforce and protect sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands of Vietnam; sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its waters are defined in accordance with UNCLOS.”

Within days of the PRC’s amendment taking effect, the United States Navy’s USS Benfold, pictured, transited the South China Sea during routine operations. The guided-missile destroyer passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, according to the U.S. 7th Fleet.

The reef is the largest of the PRC’s artificial features and houses a runway, aircraft hangars, underground storage facilities and communications towers, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. In its 2016 decision, the international tribunal ruled that the reef was entirely underwater before the PRC seized control in the mid-1990s and began land reclamation.

Maritime features that “are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea” under UNCLOS, the U.S. 7th Fleet noted in a September 8 news release.

“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” the release stated. “By engaging in normal operations within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, the United States demonstrated that vessels may lawfully exercise high-seas freedoms in those areas.”