This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A new law which authorizes the China Coast Guard (CCG) to use force in the South China Sea is drawing growing international criticism and some apparent pushback at sea from another claimant.
Ship-tracking data show that twice in February, Malaysia’s navy and coastguard have sailed close to a CCG vessel that has been lingering at the Malaysian-claimed Luconia Shoals since mid-January.
It suggests that despite the persistent presence of the CCG, which is better equipped than most of the navies in Southeast Asia, South China Sea claimants are not ready to give way as China presses its claim to sovereignty over most of these disputed waters.
According to Dr. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Malaysian forces have maintained a consistent presence at the Luconia Shoals for a number of years. “The Malaysians are certainly not lying down and get rolled over. They’re at least trying to maintain a counter-presence against China in the disputed area, cognizant of their own capacity and capability shortfalls,” Koh said.
“And of course, with the new Coast Guard Law promulgated by Beijing, we can expect the Malaysians to try to keep up what they can put up to challenge the CCG presence,” Koh told Radio Free Asia.
The U.S. State Department on Friday strongly criticized the law, adopted by China in January, that grants the CCG more leeway in asserting China’s claims — a move that has alarmed governments in Southeast Asian and beyond.
“The United States joins the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries in expressing concern with China’s recently enacted Coast Guard law, which may escalate ongoing territorial and maritime disputes,” department spokesman Ned Price said.
“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,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
After Price’s remarks, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Marine Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo told BenarNews that “we will be, as we have always been, resolute in protecting our maritime domain — regardless of what laws other countries may pass.”
“The protection of our territory and the upholding of the interest our people is our primary interest,” Arevalo said.
Earlier in February, the commander of the AFP said that the Philippines is planning to deploy more assets in the South China Sea in response to China’s new Coast Guard Law, BenarNews reported.
For years, the CCG has asserted China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, where China is locked in a series of overlapping maritime and territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
But the law adopted in late January by the National People’s Congress deepened concern that the CCG could intensify it behavior. The law explicitly states China’s coastguard and other maritime law enforcement agencies may use small arms, such as rifles, or shipborne-weapons such as deck-mounted guns, when handling foreign ships infringing upon waters that China claims as its own.
In the latest example of the CCG patrolling off the shores of other claimants, its ships have confronted Vietnamese vessels at two locations in the South China Sea in recent days.
On Saturday, the CCG 5304 sailed out from China’s artificial island built on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, arriving at a Vietnamese oil and gas block about 170 nautical miles off the coast of Vung Tau in Vietnam the following day, ship-tracking data show.
The CCG 5304 appears to have approached within one nautical mile of the PTSC Bien Dong 1, a Vietnamese floating storage and offloading (FSO) unit – likely signaling Chinese opposition to efforts to exploit resources in disputed areas of the South China Sea also claimed by China.
And on Monday, two CCG ships confronted a Vietnam-flagged vessel in waters between Quang Ngai in Vietnam and the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by China despite claims from Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Vietnam-flagged vessel — identified as “Benhai08629” on the MarineTraffic ship-tracker — left port from Da Nang on Feb. 15, navigating to an area about 110 nautical miles off the coast of Quang Ngai. Ship-tracking data show the CCG 4203 and CCG 4201 approaching the Benhai 08629 on Monday, coming within a few nautical miles of the vessel.
RFA could not confirm any additional information about the Benhai 08629, such who owns the vessel or what type of craft it is.
The latest apparent confrontation between the CCG and Malaysia began last week at South Luconia Shoals, which are about 100 nautical miles from the coast of Malaysia, and nearly 1,000 nautical miles from the southern coast of the Chinese mainland.
According to ship-tracking data, the KD Keris — shown on the MarineTraffic ship-tracking platform as “RMN WARSHIP 111” — sailed out from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia on Feb. 18, arriving at the South Luconia Shoals on the same day. As of Monday, the KD Keris was still in the area.
Two sources in the Malaysian military confirmed for BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service, that RMN WARSHIP 111 is indeed the KD Keris. Neither source was authorized to speak to reporters and so requested anonymity.
A CCG ship, the HJ5202, has been operating around the South Luconia Shoals since Jan. 17. Earlier in February, RFA reported that a Malaysian coastguard vessel sailed up to the South Luconia Shoals in an apparent challenge to the HJ5202.
A source in the Malaysian military told BenarNews that the Luconia Shoals are part of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, and that the Luconia Shoals area is part of the patrol area of the KD Keris.
“Malaysian navy ship or Malaysian coast guard ship always being sent to Beting Patinggi Ali [Luconia Shoals] to monitor the activities in the area. Any ships local or international can pass through the area but cannot conduct any economic activity in the exclusive economic zone such as drilling or fishery activities without consent,” the source said.