Smear of China's Maritime Traffic Safety Law untenable

China Military Online
Wang Xinjuan
2021-09-23 17:37:50

By Ding Duo

Western media has been smearing China's revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law since it came into force on September 1. Some American and European media claimed that the revision intensified China's assertions in the South China Sea and that part of its provisions will escalate the risk of maritime conflicts. Vicious smearing has become an old trick of the US-led West – they have done it with China’s Coast Guard Law, and now they are doing it with the Maritime Traffic Safety Law.

China has been a Category A member state of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for 16 times since 1989, and it has joined a series of international maritime conventions and intergovernmental maritime agreements involving more than 700 obligations for contracting parties, flag states and coastal states. The revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law systematically translates the contents of those conventions co-established or joined by China into domestic laws, thus aligning and coordinating them with international laws. China is showing the international community its stance and willingness to faithfully perform its obligations under the conventions, participate in international maritime cooperation, maintain maritime shipping orders, and provide relevant public goods.

According to the revised law, submersibles, nuclear-powered vessels and foreign vessels carrying radioactive materials or other toxic or hazardous substances shall report to the maritime safety administration when they enter or exit Chinese territorial sea. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the coastal state may adopt laws and regulations in respect of the safety of navigation, the regulation of maritime traffic, the preservation of the environment of the coastal state and the prevention, reduction and control of pollution thereof in waters within its sovereign jurisdiction. While UNCLOS doesn’t specify that foreign submarines and other underwater vehicles shall report to the coastal state when entering its territorial sea, it doesn’t deprive the coastal state of its rights either to take appropriate measures in conformity with UNCLOS’s spirit when it deems it necessary to protect its own peace and security interests.

UNCLOS provides that the coastal state may require tankers, nuclear-powered ships and ships carrying nuclear or other materials to confine their passage to designated sea lanes. The provision of the Maritime Traffic Safety Law that such ships should report to the maritime safety administration doesn’t contradict the UNCLOS article but is more specific and operable.

In international practice, many countries have, in accordance with UNCLOS, stipulated for the entry into and exit from their territorial sea of specific types of foreign vessels for the purpose of safeguarding national security, preserving order along the sea routes, and protecting the marine environment. Sixteen countries, including New Zealand, Egypt and Malaysia, stipulate that nuclear-powered ships and ships carrying radioactive substances shall apply for approval before entering their territorial sea; the UAE and Pakistan require such ships to give prior notice; France and Slovenia confine the passage of ships carrying radioactive substances to designated sea lanes or apply the traffic separation scheme to them.

The US and Australian defense authorities are distorting China’s revision of the law as limiting the “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, while in fact, foreign ships’ right of navigation in waters under a coastal state’s sovereign jurisdiction doesn’t stem from such freedom. Certain countries are either abusing this concept out of geopolitical considerations or trying to use it to unilaterally influence the interpretation of UNCLOS and the evolution of international law. Such a move will not bridge the contracting parties’ divergences on the interpretation and application of the convention but may affect or even sabotage the authority and integrity of the international maritime law system.

(The author is deputy director and associate researcher at the Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for South China Sea Studies)

Editor's note: This article is originally published on, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of


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