U.S. Says China Maritime Law Poses 'Serious Threat' to Freedom of the Seas

A new maritime law enacted by the Chinese government this week could pose a "serious threat" to freedom of navigation and free trade, the Pentagon has said.

An amendment to China's Maritime Traffic Safety Law—put into practice on September 1—requires foreign vessels to report information such as their name, call sign, current position, destination and cargo before sailing through the country's "territorial sea."

The People's Republic of China (PRC) defines its territorial waters as not only those off its mainland coast, but also the 12-nautical-mile stretch of sea surrounding the islands and reefs it claims in the East and South China seas—as well as Taiwan. Observers both within and outside China say the law is Beijing's attempt to further assert its claims over disputed maritime territories.

An enactment notice released by China's Maritime Safety Administration on Wednesday described the amendment as helping to regulate the conduct of maritime traffic. In its first announcement on August 27, the agency said it would "deal with" non-compliant vessels—presumably of a military nature, too—according to the country's rules and provisions.

Reached by Newsweek on Wednesday, Defense Department spokesperson John Supple said: "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.

"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 added.

The free seas principle is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—ratified by China and recognized by the U.S.—and grants to all nations the right of innocent passage through a coastal state's territorial waters. The U.S. maintains that the unilateral imposition of any advance-notification requirement is contrary to international law.

In a separate response regarding the potential impact of China's maritime law on U.S. Navy operations in the region, the Pentagon's Lt. Col. Martin Meiners said: "The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows."

At a regular press briefing on September 1, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. stands by the principle of a "universal set of rules for all countries, large and small, to include in the maritime domain."

The U.S. has "not been shy about lodging our protests" with China and would continue to oppose its "unlawful, excessive maritime claims."

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China says its ship reporting requirement applies to submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials and harmful substances, as well as "other vessels that may endanger maritime traffic safety." The last category appears to be purposely ambiguous.

The Maritime Safety Administration did not specify how it plans to handle vessels that fail to report the required data prior to transiting waters it regards as its territorial sea.

In its notice on Wednesday, the maritime authority said the new amendment "optimizes maritime traffic conditions; regulates maritime traffic conduct; strictly controls administrative licensing matters; improves maritime search and rescue; and strengths accountability."

Alongside the new safety law, China's Transport Ministry made amendments to five provisions including its Marine and Maritime Administrative Punishment, it said.