China’s president, Xi Jinping, has signed legal orders allowing a trial of military operations beyond China’s borders amid heightened tensions over claims by China’s foreign ministry that the Taiwan Strait is Chinese territorial water.
Official state media reports published this week were light on detail but said Xi had signed orders announcing trial outlines on “military operations other than war”. It said the trials would begin on Wednesday.
A subsequent report from the Global Times, a state-backed nationalistic tabloid, said the unpublished outlines would provide a legal basis for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to “safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests”. They would also allow military missions around disaster relief, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping, it said.
The legal changes would allow troops to “prevent spillover effects of regional instabilities from affecting China, secure vital transport routes for strategic materials like oil, or safeguard China’s overseas investments, projects and personnel”, the report said.
Some analysts said the move appeared to mimic Vladimir Putin’s labelling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation”.
Russia’s invasion has raised fears in Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a Chinese province that it has not ruled out “reunifying” by force. Taiwan – formally the Republic of China (Taiwan) – maintains it is a sovereign state.
Chen Ou-po, a member of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive party, said he hoped China would not use the new laws to “act indiscriminately and invade other countries”.
Blake Herzinger, an Indo-Pacific defence policy specialist, said he was inclined to think of the development as a maturing of the armed forces rather than something “particularly ominous”.
“Creating the policy foundation for more robust PLA participation in China’s foreign policy might have bearing on the new bases some have indicated (Cambodia, Solomons, etc) but the PLA already has permanent presence overseas in a basing arrangement,” he said on Twitter. “I am more inclined to think of this in terms of stability operations or other activities associated with Chinese investments and citizens in Pakistan and elsewhere.”
Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, told media that China was seeking to “shape the world around it in a way it has not done before”.
“Our national interest lies in asserting the UN convention on the law of the sea, freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight in international waters, in places like the South China Sea,” he said.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry officials staked a Chinese claim over the Taiwan Strait, the body of water separating China from the main island of Taiwan. Foreign nations have in recent years sailed warships through the strait on freedom of navigation exercises, prompting anger from Beijing.
Most countries have formal diplomatic relations with China and not Taiwan, but Taiwan has key defensive agreements with the US and broad support from other world governments.
On Monday the ministry’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said China had “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait”, accusing other countries which called the strait international waters of making false claims “in order to find a pretext for manipulating issues related to Taiwan and threatening China’s sovereignty and security”.
The US state department spokesperson, Ned Price, told Reuters the strait was an international waterway with high seas freedoms guaranteed under international law. He reiterated US concerns about China’s “aggressive rhetoric and coercive activity regarding Taiwan” and said the US “would continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and that includes transiting through the Taiwan Strait”.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Joanne Ou, called China’s position a “fallacy” and said US freedom of navigation exercises had Taiwan’s support.
Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Beijing, said recent activity by China had raised concerns about its preparations to exercise control over Taiwan or limit the freedom of movement of other parties, but it was “too early to jump to conclusions”.
Zhao said: “China deciding to challenge the United States now indicates a stronger Chinese resolve to defend and promote its perspectives on the issue of Taiwan, even if that could bring about higher tensions with the US.”
Steve Tsang, of the Soas Institute, said the change in language reflected the increasingly Sino-centric approach of how Xi’s government thought and acted. “It is not good for peace and security in the region or globally,” Tsang said.
“It is possible that not a lot will change in practice, which means that foreign warships sailing through these international waters will be monitored but not interfered with. But it can also result in a more aggressive approach with Chinese warships or planes trying to warn foreign warships off, unless the latter secured prior permission from the Chinese authorities – which would almost certainly not happen.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin