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U.S. concerned China's new coast guard law could escalate maritime disputes

FILE PHOTO: Chinese coastguard ships give chase to Vietnamese coastguard vessels (not pictured) after they came within 10 nautical miles of the Haiyang Shiyou 981, known in Vietnam as HD-981, oil rig in the South China Sea, July 15, 2014. Crewmen in blue camouflage uniforms pour out onto the deck of a Vietnamese coastguard ship as an imposing Chinese vessel guarding a giant oil rig gives chase, gathering steam by the second. A group of Chinese ships joined the pursuit, peeling away from a flotilla of about two-dozen vessels surrounding HD-981, the $1 billion rig that China deployed without notice in early May, triggering the worst breakdown in ties between the communist neighbours in three decades. Vietnam says this stretch of the South China Sea is in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and accuses China of bullying and trying to ram Vietnamese fishing vessels in the potentially energy-rich waters. China claims about nine-tenths of the South China Sea but insists it wants a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Picture taken July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Martin Petty/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is concerned by China’s recently enacted coast guard law and that it could escalate maritime disputes and be invoked to assert unlawful claims, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

China, which has maritime sovereignty disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, passed a law last month that for the first time explicitly allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular briefing Washington was “concerned by language in the law that expressly ties the potential use of force, including armed force, by the China coast guard to the enforcement of China’s claims, and ongoing territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas.”

He said language, “strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate (China’s) maritime neighbors.”

“We are further concerned that China may invoke this new law to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, which were thoroughly repudiated by the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling,” he said, referring to an international ruling that found in favor of the Philippines in a dispute with China.

Price said the United States reaffirmed a statement last July in which then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected China’s disputed claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful.”

He added that the United States “stands firm” in its alliance commitments to both Japan and the Philippines.

The United States has mutual defense treaties with both countries and has sailed regular naval patrols in the region to challenge China’s extensive maritime claims.

The Philippines said last month it had filed a diplomatic protest over China’s new law, describing it as a “threat of war.”

Reporting by Simon Lewis, Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis

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