State Department says language in the law could be used by Beijing to intimidate its neighbours in the region amid South China Sea tension.
The United States is concerned about China’s recently enacted coast guard law and that it could escalate maritime disputes and be invoked to assert unlawful claims, the US State Department said on Friday.
China, which has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, passed a law last month that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular briefing that Washington was “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, and ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.”
He said the language, “strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate [China’s] maritime neighbours.”
“We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, which were thoroughly repudiated by the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling,” he said, referring to an international ruling that found in favour of the Philippines in a dispute with 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.”
Price said the US reaffirmed a statement last July in which then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected China’s disputed claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful”.
He added that the US “stands firm” in its alliance commitments to both Japan and the Philippines.
The South China Sea dispute was among the issues that US President Joe Biden discussed in his first call as American leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
‘Threat of war’
The US has mutual defence treaties with both countries and has sailed regular naval patrols in the region to assert freedom of navigation and challenge China’s extensive maritime claims.
In recent weeks, it has deployed warships and aircraft carriers to patrol in the South China Sea, angering Beijing.
The Philippines said last month it had filed a diplomatic protest over China’s new law, describing it as a “threat of war”.
Earlier, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken had voiced concern about the Chinese maritime law in a call with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi.
Blinken at the time reaffirmed that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu, and Taiwan – fell under a security treaty that commits the US and Japan to each other’s defence.
China has repeatedly defended its new China Coast Guard Law, downplaying its effect in the disputed region.
In January, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China is just upholding its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests”.
Zhao also said that Beijing remained committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
“China’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea have been formed in the course of a long history, and are in line with international law and practice,” Zhao added.
Zhao added that countries “outside the region” will respect Beijing’s efforts “to properly handle maritime disputes” and “safeguard stability” in the South China Sea.