China Strengthens Claims Over Disputed Waters With New Maritime Law Against Foreign Ships

China will begin requiring foreign vessels to report their call signs and cargo before sailing into its "territorial sea"—a term it applies to all the islands it claims in the South China Sea and beyond.

The new regulation under China's Maritime Traffic Safety Law will come into effect on September 1, according to a notice published last Friday by the country's Maritime Safety Administration.

Observers say the move could see further attempts by Beijing to control the civilian and military traffic around its claimed territories, which include hundreds of South China Sea features, but also extend to Taiwan, its outlying islands and the Japan-controlled Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea.

The reporting rule applies to submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials as well as vessels transporting "toxic and harmful substances" including oil, chemicals and liquefied gas, China's maritime authority said.

An additional, more ambiguous article applies to "other vessels that may endanger maritime traffic safety," a line that could be stretched to include all unwelcome foreign vessels, especially of a military nature.

Starting from Wednesday, foreign ships will be required to volunteer their name, call sign, current position, destination and cargo, among other items of information. "In case the vessel fails to report as required," the notice says, "the maritime administration will deal with it according to relevant laws, regulations, rules and provisions."

The announcement doesn't clarify whether this would entail a warning, a forceful expulsion or other action. It remains unclear how China plans to enforce the regulation, and how far it will go with Chinese-claimed islands currently administered by other states.

As defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a territorial sea extends up to 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state. Foreign vessels—both civilian and military—are permitted innocent passage through the waters, according to the law ratified by China and recognized by the United States.

China Protests U.S. Operations

The Chinese government's claims to territorial waters extend to contested features such as the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China frequently protests the U.S. Navy's freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) around the archipelago, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

During its latest FONOP around the China-controlled islands on July 12, the U.S. 7th Fleet said: "Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States—including their warships—enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law."

China's new regulation isn't expected to affect U.S. Navy operations in the region.

"The United States remains firm that any coastal state law or regulation must not infringe upon navigation and overflight rights enjoyed by all nations under international law," Pentagon spokesperson John Supple told Newsweek.

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations," he said in a written statement.

"The United States remains committed to upholding the rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific region," he added.

In interviews following the announcement, Chinese commentator Song Zhongping appeared to confirm Beijing's attempts to bend UNCLOS norms.

The new regulation "showcases China's determination to regulate the foreign vessels' right of use within the country's territorial waters, which should be based on proper identification," he said in a Sunday report by Chinese Communist Party tabloid the Global Times.

He added: "If the vessel is military and trespassing in China's territorial waters without advance notice, it will be considered as serious provocation, and the Chinese military will take over to dispel or take even stronger measures to punish the invaders."

In a South China Morning Post report on Monday, Song remarked on the intended reach of the amendment: "The new regulation applies to China's territorial waters—including the East China Sea, the South China Sea and China's islands and reefs—to regulate China's management of those territorial waters."

"Foreign vessels must report and abide by our laws and regulations, to safeguard national sovereignty and security," he was quoted as saying.

During a visit to Southeast Asia last week, Vice President Kamala Harris told officials in Hanoi on Wednesday: "We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims."

While speaking in Singapore the day before, she accused China of coercion and intimidation against other South China Sea littoral states.

This story has been updated with a statement from the Department of Defense.

China Targets Foreign Vessels With New Law
The Arliegh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd (front) and USS Benfold transit the South China Sea on July 13, 2021. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kaylianna Genier/U.S. Navy

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