The United States warned on Friday that a new Chinese maritime law authorizing coast guard vessels to fire on ships in the South China Sea may escalate disputes in the region.
“We are specifically concerned by language in the law that expressly ties the potential use of force, including armed force by the China coast guard, to the enforcement of China’s claims in ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Mr. Price also reaffirmed the Trump administration‘s legal declaration, made in July, rejecting Chinese maritime claims over the South China Sea.
The declaration said Chinese assertions on the sea are “completely unlawful.” The declaration marked a major shift in U.S. policy. Past administrations had said the U.S. government was neutral in the territorial disputes.
China in 2013 began a major campaign of island-building on disputed South China Sea islands and in 2018 began deploying anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles on some of the islands.
The militarization of the islands violated a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the outposts.
The missiles are now capable of threatening transiting ships and aircraft in a waterway used by shipping to move an estimated $3.5 trillion in goods.
The declaration means the United States does not recognize Beijing’s claim to control 200 nautical-mile limits around the Spratly Islands.
“China’s harassment in these areas of other claimants, state hydrocarbon exploration or fishing activity, or unilateral exploitation of those maritime resources is unlawful,” Mr. Price said.
Mr. Price said China’s authorization for coast guard vessels to use force “may escalate ongoing territorial and maritime disputes,” he told reporters.
“Language in that law, including text allowing the coast guard 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 neighbors,” Mr. Price said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
“We remind the PRC and all whose forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime forces act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities,” he said.
The use-of-force provisions of the law could be used by China to assert its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.
China announced the new law in January and it took effect earlier this month. It authorizes the coast guard to use force against foreign actors and to dismantle foreign structures in disputed areas. The Chinese coast guard is the largest maritime law enforcement fleet in the region and has been used over the past decade by Beijing to assert control in the region.
China has declared an estimated 90 percent of the sea as its maritime territory.
That claim was ruled unlawful in 2016 by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, a judicial body set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China, however, rejected the ruling and continues to claim it owns the South China Sea.
U.S. warships have been conducting stepped-up freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea in recent months.
Earlier this month, two U.S. aircraft carriers conducted operations in the sea in a major show of force.
“The United States reminds China of its obligations under the United Nations Charter to refrain from the threat or use of force, and to conform its maritime claims to the International Law of the Sea, as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention,” Mr. Price said. “We stand firm in our respective alliance commitments to Japan and the Philippines.”