Will China use new law to justify intrusions into Japanese waters?

Does China intend to justify intruding into Japan’s territorial waters and tracking Japanese vessels around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture? Japan needs to appeal to the international community about the selfishness of China’s legislation, which goes against international law.

China’s legislative body has passed a bill to revise its Maritime Traffic Safety Law. The revision aims to strengthen the power of the Maritime Safety Administration, which is tasked with controlling vessels and monitoring maritime traffic, and to expand the scope of its activities to the open seas — activities that until now have been focused on inland seas, bays and ports.

The revised law stipulates that the maritime administration can order “foreign vessels that may threaten the safety of China’s territorial waters” to leave and even track them. “Vessels that may endanger the safety of maritime traffic” will also be obliged to report their presence when entering into its territorial waters, and violators will be fined.

China insists that its sovereignty extends to the entire South China Sea and unilaterally claims the Senkaku Islands as its territory.

Given this, if the revised law is applied to waters that China considers to be its territorial waters, Japanese fishing and research vessels could be captured by China and forced to pay fines.

The maritime administration will reportedly commission a 10,000-ton class patrol ship by the end of this year, which will be larger than Japan Coast Guard patrol ships. There are fears that its activities will not be confined to the South China Sea, but will expand to the East China Sea and waters around Japan.

China’s Coast Guard Law came into force in February, stipulating that the coast guard, which is responsible for cracking down on illegal activities at sea, is allowed to use weapons if it deems that its sovereignty has been violated. Japan should be vigilant against cases in which the China Coast Guard and the maritime administration take concerted actions to intrude into Japan’s territorial waters.

Regarding the purpose of these legislative moves, China says it aims to “support the establishment of a maritime power from a legal aspect.” It is clear that China aims to eliminate the passage of foreign vessels through the use of weapons and threats such as tracking and seizure, and to make its unilateral claims on territory and territorial waters a fait accompli. This is completely unacceptable.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes the right to innocent passage by foreign vessels, the principle that foreign vessels can sail in territorial waters as long as they do not harm the peace, order and safety of the coastal state. China should respect this.

In its latest Diplomatic Bluebook, Japan clearly states for the first time that China’s intrusions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands are a “violation of international law.” The publication argues that China’s rapid military expansion has raised strong security concerns in the region and the international community.

While urging China to refrain from its provocative actions, Japan needs to anticipate possible situations in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands and enhance its capability to respond.

The Philippines and Vietnam, which are disputing territorial rights in the South China Sea, are also increasing their opposition to China. China must be aware that its actions in disregard of the rule of law have aroused the alarm of other countries and undermined its own national interests.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 2, 2021.