When Diplomacy Becomes Lost at Sea: China’s New Coast Guard Law Intensifies South China Sea Dispute

Throughout the 21st century, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has taken intentional strides towards the expansion of its naval programs. In September 2020, such efforts drew renewed international attention when the size of the PRC’s maritime forces surpassed the size of the United States’ maritime forces. Perhaps more alarming than the size of the PRC’s naval forces, however, is their application; PRC’s military expansion has exacerbated longstanding tensions in the South China Sea.

In January 2021, the PRC passed a law permitting its coast guard, often referred to as the nation’s second navy, to fire on enemy vessels to defend China’s claims. Such a declaration not only reinforces China’s jurisdiction over the majority of the South China Sea but also further militarizes and destabilizes the region. 

At the heart of the South China Sea dispute is the PRC’s insistent claim to 80 percent of the waters off of the coast of Southeast Asia. China’s declaration disregards the territorial claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, among other Southeast Asian countries. The PRC’s justification for such claims, which it has enforced with submarines and other displays of military might, is that those waters historically belonged to China before neighboring countries made their official claims. China’s assertion relies on 1929 territorial boundaries made by British cartographers. Their map gives China the bulk of the South China Sea with little room between China’s proclaimed maritime borders and the coast of other Southeast Asian countries. 

In 2013, China expanded these pre-existing claims to encompass the island of Taiwan, which drew the ire of the United States—a nation that traditionally backed the sovereignty of the island nation. Yet, in the face of international displeasure, China’s territorial ambitions continued. In 2016, the Philippines pursued legal action to address the issue after failed attempts at diplomacy. The Philippines government brought the case against China to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United Nations verdict ruled in favor of the Philippines and declared China’s actions—establishing military bases on the islands within the sea, denying other countries navigational freedoms, and escalating international tensions through excessive militarization of the sea—illegal under international decree. However, the PRC refused to acknowledge such international claims and went largely unchallenged on the water, as no nation was willing to lead a full-scale military and naval intervention in accordance with the ruling at the risk of Chinese retaliation. 

To understand China’s blatant negligence towards the consequences of its provocative actions, one must understand why China is adamant about controlling the South China Sea. The region is of geopolitical importance. Serving as the passage for ships from the U.S. West Coast to the Arabian peninsula, the South China Sea comprises 12 percent of the global fish catch, is home to more than half of the world’s fishing vessels, and witnesses  $5.3 trillion of trade annually. China’s insistence on maritime jurisdiction, then, may be to command and possibly tighten international supply channels and trading patterns. 

The PRC’s considerations, however, are potentially beyond economic. Dominance in the region would offer China the upper hand in the case of a naval attack; this possibility is unlikely. According to The Diplomat, “The United States is not about to attack China, by sea, land, or air, and Beijing knows it. It is precisely that knowledge that has allowed China to entrench itself so successfully, acre by acre, runway by runway, missile by missile, without triggering a truly kinetic American response.” 

Regardless of intention, China’s claims to the South China Sea region indicates its hunger for control beyond its immediate borders; as of January 2021, the impasse remains. Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines have expressed minimal interest in revoking their claims to their waters. China has refused attempts by the Association of South-East Asian nations to draft a code of conduct that would help manage the conflict.For the time being, the U.S. is the strongest threat to China’s adamance. The Biden administration has clarified its refusal to curb China: in his first foreign policy speech as president, President Biden called China the “most serious competitor” to the United States. However, the United States’ confrontation with China is unlikely; neither would prefer to upset a delicate international balance. Nonetheless, unhindered navigation by all ships and aircraft in the South China Sea would beget the peace and prosperity of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Only time will tell if China ceases to favor its own agenda over international priorities.

By Daniel Waheed