Members of the Chinese Coast Guard stand in formation on board their vessel after it anchored at Manila port on January 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Stringer

MANILA – China has stepped up its domination strategy for the South China Sea via a new maritime law that deliberately restricts freedom of navigation for various types of foreign-flagged vessels that enter Beijing-claimed waters.

The law, which was passed in April and came into force on September 1, has raised the geopolitical temperature in the contested waterway and could put China on a new collision course with the US and its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) allies India, Australia and Japan.

China’s controversial nine-dash line claims cover more than two-thirds of the entire South China Sea basin, which raises new questions about how far Beijing is willing to reach to enforce the new amended Maritime Traffic Safety Law (MTSL), which requires Chinese pilots to board various types of vessels including oil tankers and submersibles.

In response to the new MTSL’s implementation, the US Pentagon warned against “infring[ing] upon rights enjoyed by all nations under international law.”

The Pentagon described the new maritime law as a  “serious threat” to freedom of navigation and commerce in the South China Sea – a key artery of global trade and vital source of fisheries for hundreds of millions of people across littoral states.

“The United States remains firm that any coastal state law or regulation must not infringe upon navigation and overflight rights enjoyed by all nations under international law,” said Pentagon spokesman John Supple.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations,” he added.

During her visit to Southeast Asia last week, US Vice President Kamala Harris criticized China’s expansive claim “to the vast majority of the South China Sea” as “unlawful”, and vowed to stand by allies and regional partners against Beijing’s “bullying” behavior in adjacent waters.

She also made it clear that growing cooperation between the US and other major Indo-Pacific powers is indispensable to preserving a free and open order in the region.

In the past year alone, China announced new administrative zones across the entire South China Sea, while conducting unprecedented wargames including a five-day naval drill in the South China Sea as well as major war drills in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Strait in recent weeks.

Earlier this year, China also passed another controversial maritime law that greenlighted usage of live ammunition and lethal force by Chinese coast guard forces against foreign fishing vessels entering contested areas.

As for a long-awaited Code of Conduct between China and its smaller South China Sea claimants, Beijing turned the latest rounds of unending negotiations into an opportunity to take a jab at the US, warning against “external interference” that could undermine the “good situation of peace and stability in the region.”

While Beijing flexes its naval muscles, Washington and its Quad allies are ramping up their countervailing activities. Days before China’s new foreign ship law came into effect, the four allies held from August 26-29 their latest joint naval exercises off the coast of Guam in a clear show of force against a resurgent China.

The exercises saw the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces deploying special forces, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters,  maritime reconnaissance aircraft,  a submarine mine-layer, and three surface combatants, while the US Navy similarly deployed special forces, three destroyers, ASW helicopters and a P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. On its part, Australia sent special forces, an ASW helicopter and a single warship.

Those drills have been backed with diplomacy. US President Joseph Biden and his top deputies have held multiple virtual and in-person meetings with major counterparts across the Indo-Pacific since taking office in January.

Last month, senior officials from Quad powers held a virtual meeting in mid-August to further consolidate their newfound purpose, step up cooperation on global security affairs, as well as explore concrete ways to counter China’s coercive behavior.

According to the US State Department, the “four democracies acknowledged that global security and prosperity depends on the region remaining inclusive, resilient, and healthy.”

A trilateral exercise between the U.S. Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

The aim of the meeting, according to Washington, was to enhance multilateral mechanisms that support “countries vulnerable to coercive actions in the Indo-Pacific.”

In a separate statement, Japan’s Foreign Ministry hailed the meeting as part of a broader “vision for the peace and prosperity of the region and its importance in the post-Covid world is increasing.”

The Malabar exercises, which began in 1992 between Indian and US naval forces, were initially held off the Indian coast, specifically in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, but later expanded to include the Western Pacific. 

Since 2015, Japan has consistently joined the naval drills, which aim at enhancing interoperability and military-to-military diplomacy among Indo-Pacific powers.

But it was not until last year that Australia, a US treaty ally, decided to rejoin the exercises following a 13-year hiatus.

Back in 2007, both Australia and India, then under more Beijing-friendly governments, succumbed to Chinese pressure by not pressing ahead with quadrilateral naval exercises, leaving the future of the entire Quad in limbo.

During a visit to China in 2008, Australia’s then-foreign minister Stephen Smith went so far as to announce his country’s withdrawal from the Quad, reflecting Canberra’s determination to maintain cordial ties with China.

In recent years, however, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy as well as expanding naval footprint in adjacent waters has triggered a Quad renaissance.

Australia and other like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, including France, Britain and Germany, have since stepped up their strategic and military cooperation in the South China Sea and Western Pacific.

China has lashed out at the various exercises as an effort to “contain” its rise, while conducting its own major war games in adjacent waters just days before the latest Malabar exercises off of Guam.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

Still, the Quad is set to further expand its defense and strategic cooperation in the months and years ahead.

Australia will formally invite India to join the Exercise Talisman Sabre joint exercise in 2023, the latest iteration of which saw 17,000 military personnel from seven nations, including Britain, South Korea and New Zealand, participating in massive war games on land, air and sea.

Back in April, the Quad and France also conducted the La Pérouse exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Following other Indo-Pacific powers and adding a new geostrategic twist to the contest, India has also deployed a naval contingent to the South China Sea, a reflection of the growing anxiety over the inability of smaller Southeast Asian nations to hold China’s sea ambitions at bay.

“The deployment of the Indian Navy ships seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain and to strengthen existing bonds between India and countries of the Indo-Pacific,” said the Indian Navy following its recent deployment of a guided-missile frigate Shivalik, anti-submarine corvette Kadmatt, guided-missile destroyer Ranvijay and guided-missile corvette Kora to the Western Pacific for the Quad exercises.

The statement said its contingent plans to make goodwill port calls at and conduct joint exercises with naval counterparts from Indonesia (Samudra Shakti), Australia (AUS-INDEX), Singapore (SIMBEX) Vietnam and the Philippines.