New Coast Guard Law authorises navy to demolish other countries' structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China and to seize or use weapons against foreign vessels illegally entering its territorial waters.
China has authorised its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels and destroy structures on features it claims, potentially raising the possibility of clashes with regional maritime rivals.
The Coast Guard Law passed on Friday empowers the force to "take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations or individuals at sea."
The law also authorises the coast guard to demolish other countries' structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China and to seize or order foreign vessels illegally entering China's territorial waters to leave.
The bill also empowers the coastguard to create temporary exclusion zones "as needed" to stop other vessels and personnel from entering.
Concerns over the bill
Responding to concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday that the law is in line with international practices.
The first article of the bill explains that the law is needed to safeguard China's sovereignty, security, and maritime rights.
This law comes seven years after China merged several civilian maritime law-enforcement agencies to form a coast guard bureau.
After the bureau came under the command of the People's Armed Police in 2018, it became a proper branch of the military forces.
Claims heat up in disputed waters
China's coast guard is the most powerful force of its kind in the region and is already active in the vicinity of uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing, as well as in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety.
Those activities have brought the coast guard into frequent contact with air and sea forces from Japan, its chief ally the US, and other claimants to territory in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Both water bodies are considered potential flashpoints and the law's passage may be a signal that China is preparing to up the stakes over what it considers its key national interests.
Controlling them is a strategic imperative if China wishes to displace the US as the dominant military power in East Asia, while the resources they contain, including fish stocks and undersea deposits of oil and natural gas, may be key to maintaining China’s continued economic development.
READ MORE: The South China Sea dispute explained