China's fishing rules could be a shot in the foot: analysts

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Ongoing ambiguity surrounding Beijing's claims in the flashpoint East Sea will do nothing but to court conflict, analysts say

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai Island in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago. The ambiguity of China's claims in the disputed East Sea has long raised hackles from the countries concerned an ambiguous Chinese law requiring foreign vessels to seek approval from Beijing's regional authorities to operate in the waters will do nothing but to court conflict, analysts say. PHOTO: REUTERS

An ambiguous Chinese law requiring foreign vessels to seek approval from Beijing's regional authorities to operate in the disputed East Sea could either corroborate China's belligerent rise in the region or discredit the country as a toothless power in the eyes of a nationalistic domestic audience, analysts say.

The rules, approved by China's southern Hainan Province, took effect on January 1 and compel foreign fishing vessels to obtain consent to enter the waters, which the local government says are under its jurisdiction.

The fishing curbs apply to two million square kilometers in the minerals and resource-rich East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea, according to China's official news agency Xinhua.

The Vietnamese government, which is embroiled in a sovereignty dispute over the East Sea with China, has dismissed the rules as "illegal and invalid", calling them a serious violation of its sovereignty. Three other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have also claimed areas in the waters.

The Philippines has joined the camp opposed to China's claims. So have the US and Japan, two powers with "no direct stake in the issue" in the words of China.

A Filipino senior official said Thursday the Hainan law did not apply to Philippine territorial waters.

"We will not follow their rules in our own territory. Why do we need permission from another country that does not own our fishing grounds? These are ours," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was quoted by AFP as saying.

"We still have the capability to secure them (Filipino fishermen)."

Beijing has bristled at allegations that it is overreaching. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the regulations were "according to international law."

Chinese experts argued that these rules are not new but simply Hainan's amendments to its existing fishing rules aimed at enhancing management of its administrative waters in the East Sea.

"Allegations calling the law a threat to regional stability are totally groundless," Li Guoqiang, a researcher of Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted by Xinhua as saying Wednesday.

Analysts say the critical questions now are if, when and where the revised rules will be enforced, given that other claimants to the area are likely to snub them.

"These regulations may not be new or articulate new policy regarding foreign vessels in China's claimed waters. But they do beg the questions of "˜why now' and "˜why has China made an in-your-face reaffirmation of such a highly controversial provision'?" Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute, told Vietweek.

"Doing so plays right into the US attempt to convince ASEAN nations that China is a threat"”that as it "˜rises' it is becoming an aggressive rogue nation that is bent on domination of the South China Sea. It also unnecessarily brings back into play the issue of "˜freedom of navigation' which concerns all sea-faring nations," Valencia said.

The US continues to reiterate its economic and military "pivot" towards the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region, a move China perceives as an attempt to contain its rise.

Japan, America's major ally in the region that has a separate lingering dispute with China over the East China Sea, is also a vocal critic of China's maritime policies.

Vietnam and the Philippines have already accused China of harassing their fishermen and vessels in the disputed waters. It is in this context that analysts say if harassment becomes widespread and common place it will indeed be - in the words of the US State Department - "provocative and potentially dangerous."

Experts also raise another major question over whether the new fishing rules will be affirmed by Beijing and whether they will be enforced by the central government.

"Hainan itself has few capabilities itself for enforcing the new rules - only the central government has the ships and aircraft to enforce the new rules," Sam Bateman, a maritime security researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told Vietweek.

But whatever the rationale for these fishing rules is, analysts say China is facing a political stalemate of its own making.

"If it clarifies that the law applies to much of the South China Sea and tries to enforce it, it will have "˜crossed the Rubicon' vis-à-vis other claimants and users of the sea," Valencia said.

"If China continues its ambiguity regarding the applicable area of the legislation as well as its maritime claims, other nations will ignore the regulations. As a reaction, China's domestic nationalists will claim that China appears to be a "˜paper tiger' incapable of enforcing its own law," he said.

"This seems a no-win situation."

At the end of the day, the ambiguity of China's claims in the East Sea has long raised hackles from the countries concerned and will continue to thwart a workable solution to the long-festering dispute, analysts say.

Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the infamous nine-dashed line that takes in about 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea on Chinese maps, a move emphatically rejected by international experts.

This vague boundary was first officially published on a map by China's Nationalist government in 1947. Consistently, since the early 1970s, all maps of China shown in state-sanctioned publications in China have shown the nine-dashed line and the Paracels and Spratlys as Chinese territory.

"The Chinese have been deliberately ambiguous about the nine-dashed line for years, and that has led to deep uncertainty and suspicion in the region about Chinese intentions," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The Chinese seem to believe that ambiguity serves their interests, but I would argue that it has been contrary to their interests."

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