China is trying to bolster the legal basis for its maritime-security forces operating in contested areas of the South China Sea, threatening to complicate fraught relations with southern neighbors and drawing quick criticism from the U.S.
A new regulation enacted by the southern island province of Hainan requires non-Chinese fishing vessels wanting to operate in the South China Sea to first obtain permission from China's central government.
The new regulation is the latest move by China to assert its claim to disputed territories on its fringes. In November, China announced an air-control zone over the East China Sea, aggravating a dispute with Japan over a set of small islands. In the South China Sea, China has dislodged the Philippines from a contested shoal, and Chinese maritime security vessels have harassed Vietnamese fishermen and other foreign commercial ships.
'The passing of these restrictions on other countries' fishing activities in disputed portions of the South China Sea is a provocative and potentially dangerous act,' said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
The new Hainan rule, which took effect Jan. 1, is unlikely to have immediate effect on many non-Chinese fishermen operating in the South China Sea, and it remains unclear how strictly the regulations will be enforced. Chinese law already says foreign fishing vessels wishing to operate in Chinese waters must receive permission from Chinese central authorities, though the Hainan regulation appears to deal more directly with disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Enforcement, scholars and diplomats said, at least in the short term, would likely be limited to areas around the disputed Paracel Islands, which are closer to Hainan, and where Chinese maritime forces have a sizable presence.
'The new regulation provides legal justification for what Chinese authorities have been doing for several years,' said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Civilian and military vessels patrol widely in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in its entirety. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have competing claims on the sea.
'China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims,' the State Department's Ms. Psaki said.
Hainan is at the forefront of China's efforts to exert sway over the South China Sea. The island is a base for naval and other maritime security agencies and supplies outposts sprinkled among the sea's islets.
The Hainan island province passed another set of regulations in late 2012 asserting provincial security forces had the right to board foreign vessels operating in territory claimed by Beijing.
The new regulation states that the foreign fishing vessels were required to obtain Beijing's permission to operate in Hainan's jurisdictional waters. The regulation doesn't spell out how far those waters extend.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry didn't respond to a request to comment on the new regulations. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs referred to an earlier statement by spokesman Raul Hernandez, who on Wednesday was quoted by the Associated Press as saying his country's diplomats were seeking additional information on the new regulations.
At a daily press briefing on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying didn't respond directly to how the new regulations would be implemented. 'Its purpose is to strengthen the operation, development and rational utilization of fishery resources to protect fishery workers, ' she said.
The sea is home to critical shipping lanes, and may hold significant reserves of natural gas and oil.
The U.S., a longtime ally of the Philippines, says it doesn't take sides in the territorial disputes, but Secretary of State John Kerry said last month while visiting Vietnam said that the U.S. opposes 'coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims.'
The Philippines and Vietnam have sparred openly with China in recent years, as the Chinese government worked more actively to establish control over the contested areas.
In one incident, the Philippines and China were locked in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, fertile fishing ground west of Manila. China has since established effective control over Scarborough.
澳大利亚国防军事学院(Australian Defense Force Academy)荣誉教授塞耶(Carlyle Thayer)说，新规为中国当局数年来一直在做的事情提供了法律依据。
越南外交部没有回应就新规置评的请求。菲律宾外交部提到了其发言人赫南德兹(Raul Hernandez)之前说的话。据美联社(Associated Press)周三报道，赫南德兹表示，菲律宾外交人员正设法了解有关这项新规的进一步信息。