Last week, Reuters reported that China is “considering revisions to its maritime safety law which would make foreign submersibles travel on the surface and report their movements to authorities when in China’s waters.” The news bulletin also reported that draft provisions would allow maritime authorities “to stop foreign ships entering Chinese waters if the ships are judged to be a possible cause of harm to navigational safety and order.”
A closer look at this report reveals that some, but not all, of the proposals simply incorporate legitimate rights enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Most reiterate legal claims already articulated in Chinese domestic legislation, such as prior notification for innocent passage in the territorial sea. In important respects, therefore, the law does not significantly depart from existing Chinese legal practice. Apart from the underlying legality, however, these changes suggest that Beijing is consolidating a putative legal basis for asserting its security interests and may be readying for more pronounced conflict in the South China Sea.
Updating China’s 1984 maritime safety law
Before proceeding to substance, here is a brief review of the status of these proposals. The Standing Committee of the People’s Congress, China’s supreme legislative body, passed the current Maritime Safety Law on September 2, 1983. It became operative on January 1, 1984—ten years before UNCLOS came into force and twelve years before China acceded to it. The State Council, China’s chief administrative authority, is seeking public comments on its proposed changes through February 14, 2017. These comments will be considered before a final rule is promulgated—meaning that any of its provisions could change, though radical departures are not anticipated. As it stands now, proposed changes include provisions for rescue at sea, maritime labor and safety standards, as well as what the State Council has termed six “refinements” for “protecting maritime rights.” Today, I will focus primarily on these six changes. For a complete copy of the draft law, see here.