Heating up again.
Tensions are set to soar in the south and east China seas as Beijing mulls a ban on foreign submarines from what it argues are its territorial waters.
An international court of arbitration last year rejected Beijing’s assertion that the vast swath of water between Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines is its traditional national territory. China has been controversially building a string of artificial island fortresses to enforce its ownership over the disputed waterways and the vital sea lanes and resources they contain.
The United States maintains the south and east China seas are international waters and has repeatedly demonstrated it wishes to maintain what it calls ‘freedom of navigation’ in the contested area.
Now a report in Chinese state-owned media says Beijing is in the process of reviewing its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law.
The draft proposal will allow the People’s Liberation Army Navy and coast guard forces to prevent designated “safety offenders” from operating in Chinese waters — including both national waters and its exclusive economic zone.
Surprisingly, it singles out ‘submersibles’.
Foreign submersibles should travel on the surface, display national flags and report to Chinese maritime management administrations when they pass China’s water areas, the draft law reportedly requires.
“The revisions stipulate that the authorities will be able to designate specific areas and bar foreign ships from passing through those areas according to their own assessment of maritime traffic safety,” one report says.
Under the new law, foreign ships violating the laws would be ‘expelled’ from Chinese waters.
Beijing is nearing completion of its chain of artificial island fortresses through the disputed Parcel Islands, Spratley Islands and Scarborough Shoals.
“Beijing is seeking to improve its management of maritime security by adding new operational details into law, especially details related to growing threats from foreign close-in surveillance,” Lin Yongxin, a senior researcher from the government-affiliated National Institute on South China Sea Studies, told the South China Morning Post.
Defense and international affairs think-tank the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in December released satellite photographs revealing China has added anti-aircraft and antimissile guns and missiles to its extensive island airfield and port facilities.
The militarization of these facilities — which China had previously insisted were only intended for maritime safety — has renewed fears Beijing would soon impose an air identification zone over the South China Sea.
The declaration of such zones, which insists all aircraft seek approval to pass through the airspace, is seen as an attempt to exercise national control over waters generally regarded as being open to international use.
To assert what it calls international rights of free passage, the US Navy has this week sent an aircraft carrier battle group into the contested waters. The USS Carl Vinson and its escorting warships — which almost certainly includes submarines — is expected to ‘test’ Beijing’s resolve by passing within 22km of one or more artificial islands.
This distance is internationally recognized as the boundary of waters under the total control of a nation. The catch is international law does not recognize China’s artificial islands as being national territory, though Beijing does.
If enacted, it’s a move likely to provoke further conflict with Washington.
When China imposed an ‘air identification zone’ over East China Sea islands jointly claimed by Japan in 2013, the United States responded by sending nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the area. China then sought to ‘enforce’ its claim through overflights of its own aircraft and sending its only aircraft carrier — PNAS Liaoning — into the disputed waters.
It is likely a similar stand-off would result from any ban on submarines operating in the South China Sea.
US media reports US Navy is planning a fresh freedom of navigation operation around China’s man-made islands, the first under President Donald Trump.
The Navy Times, citing defense officials, says the operation would most likely be carried out by the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which began patrolling the South China Sea on the weekend. It would involve sailing within 22-mile (35km) territorial waters of the artificial islands China claims as its own, the report said.
According to newspaper, the plans are awaiting President Trump’s approval.
China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang overnight said he was aware of the reports.
He said that while China respects freedom of navigation under international law, “we have firm objections to any country that impairs China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight.”
“We urge the US side not to take any actions that challenge China’s sovereignty and security, and respect the effort made by regional countries in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he told reporters.
US Navy warships have deliberately sailed close to Chinese-occupied features four times since October 2015, ignoring Beijing’s sovereignty claims.
The first three missions challenged Beijing’s requirement for ships to obtain permission prior to transit, while the last one challenged China’s sovereignty over waters encompassing the Paracels.