The rules, approved by China's southern Hainan province, took
effect on January 1 and require foreign fishing vessels to obtain
approval to enter the waters, which the local government says are
under its jurisdiction.
Beijing claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea
and rejects rival claims to parts of it from the Philippines,
Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
Washington called the fishing rules "provocative and potentially
dangerous", prompting a rebuttal from China's foreign ministry on
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the government "has
the right and responsibility to regulate the relevant islands and
reefs as well as non-biological resources" according to
international and domestic law.
"For more than 30 years, China's relevant fisheries laws and
regulations have been consistently implemented in a normal way, and
have never caused any tension," Hua said at a daily news briefing.
"If someone feels the need to say that technical amendments to local
fisheries regulations implemented many years ago will cause tensions
in the region and pose a threat to regional stability, then I can
only say that if this does not stem from a lack of basic common
sense, then it must be due to an ulterior motive."
A government-affiliated fishing organization in Vietnam criticized
the new rules and the Philippines said they escalate tensions in the
"These regulations seriously violate the freedom of navigation and
the right to fish of all states in the high seas," foreign ministry
spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
"We have requested China to immediately clarify the new fisheries
After China's announcement late last year of an air defense
identification zone in the East China Sea, which drew sharp
criticism from Washington, the fishing rules add another irritant to
"China has not offered any explanation or basis under international
law for these extensive maritime claims," State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing on Thursday.
"Our long-standing position has been that all concerned parties
should avoid any unilateral action that raises tensions and
undermines the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful
resolution of differences."
Fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines have been caught up in
heated territorial disputes with China on the seas in recent years.
Last year, Vietnam accused China of opening fire on a fishing boat
in the South China Sea, and later of endangering the lives of
fishermen after ramming a fishing trawler.
The State Department spokeswoman gave no indication of any possible
U.S. response to the fishing zone.
Hainan officials were not immediately available to comment. But
according to the Hainan legislature's website, foreign fishing
vessels need approval to enter from the "relevant and responsible
department" of the Chinese government's Cabinet.
Hainan, which juts into the South China Sea from China's southern
tip, is responsible for administering the country's extensive claims
to the myriad islets and atolls in the sea.
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It says it governs 2 million square km (770,000 square miles) of
water, according to local government data issued in 2011. The South
China Sea is an estimated 3.5 million square km (1.4 million square
miles) in size.
The province is also home to Chinese naval facilities that include a
purpose-built dock for the country's only aircraft carrier and a
base for attack submarines.
The fishing rules do not outline penalties, but the requirements are
similar to a 2004 national law that says boats entering Chinese
territory without permission can have their catch and fishing
equipment seized and face fines of up to 500,000 yuan ($82,600).
Wu Shicun, head of Hainan's foreign affairs office until last May,
told Reuters that offending foreign fishing vessels would be
expelled if they are in waters around Hainan and the disputed
"If we can't expel them, then we'll go on board to make checks to
see whether there's any illegal fishing," said Wu, now president of
the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a think-tank
that advises the government on policy on the South China Sea. "We'll
drag you back to be handled, confiscate (your) fishing gear, detain
the vessel and fine (you). The most serious fine is 500,000 yuan."
Vietnam reiterated its claim to sovereignty over the Paracel and
Spratlys islands in the South China Sea, both also claimed by
"All foreign activities at these areas without Vietnam's acceptance
are illegal and groundless," Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh
Nghi said in a written response to questions about the new fishing
The government-affiliated fishing organization, the Vietnam
Fisheries Society, condemned the Hainan regulations.
"This action from China will directly affect Vietnamese fishermen,
damage their work, their livelihoods and impact their families,"
said Vo Van Trac, vice chairman of the body.
Donald Rothwell, a maritime law expert at the Australian National
University College of Law, said the fisheries rules were unlikely to
advance China's claims on the South China Sea given the likely
reaction from other countries with rival claims.
"The only way it can advance its position is if China actually seeks
to enforce these laws and the enforcement mechanisms are successful
and prosecutions result or it has conditions found in its favor by
international courts," he said.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Sui-Lee Wee,
Huang Yan and Michael Martina in Beijing, Nguyen Phuong Linh and Ho
Binh Minh in Hanoi and David Brunnstrom in Washington; editing by
Dean Yates and Neil Fullick)
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