China's New Fishing Regulations: An Act of State Piracy?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China's New Fishing Regulations: An Act of State Piracy?


On November 29, 2013, six days after China’s Ministry of National Defense announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, Hainan province quietly issued new regulations on fishing in the South China Sea. These regulations were announced on December 3 and came into force on January 1, 2014.

Both of these actions were unilateral and aimed at extending the legal basis for China’s claim to land features and maritime zones in the East and South China Seas. China’s actions challenge the sovereignty of neighboring states, and have the potential to raise tensions and risk triggering an armed incident.

Hainan province’s new fishing regulations require all foreign vessels that seek to fish or conduct surveys in waters claimed by China to obtain advance approval from the “relevant and responsible department” under the Cabinet.

Hainan province claims administrative responsibility over Hainan Island, the Xisha (Paracel) archipelago, Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) archipelago, the Nansha (Spratly) archipelago “and their dependent waters.” These dependent waters stretch approximately two million square kilometers or roughly 57 percent of the 3.6 million square kilometers enclosed in China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

Foreign fishing boats and survey vessels that refuse to comply will be either forced out of the area or boarded, impounded and subject to a fine of up to $83,000. Hainan province authorities also assert the right to confiscate the fish catches it finds on the boats that it seizes.

China has sovereign jurisdiction over the waters and seabed included in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Hainan provincial authorities are within their legal rights to set restrictions on foreign vessels that seek to fish in this 200 nautical miles. But Hainan authorities must respect the innocent passage of all other vessels.

China also asserts sovereign jurisdiction of the waters adjacent to the Paracel Islands. This claim is disputed by Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam, as signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are obliged to refrain from taking unilateral action and are further obliged to cooperate and refrain from the threat or use of force. These obligations have been honored in the breach in the past.

Hainan province’s new regulations also cover the waters in the area where China’s nine-dash line claim overlaps with the EEZs proclaimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Any attempt to enforce Chinese jurisdiction in these waters will likely provoke resistance and could lead to armed clashes at sea.

The most contentious aspect of the new fishing regulation, however, relates to what are commonly viewed as international waters. All fishing vessels and survey ships have a right of freedom of navigation in international waters. Any Chinese attempt to interfere with these vessels could be viewed as an act of “state piracy.” This could well entail international legal action against the Chinese ships involved.

It is highly unlikely that China can enforce this new edict in the vast waters claimed by Hainan province. Despite the continuing build-up of maritime enforcement capabilities, including merging several agencies into a new Coast Guard, China lacks sufficient maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels to consistently cover this vast area. This raises the possibility that China may selectively apply these regulations against Filipino fishermen. This would serve to add pressure on Manila and raise the costs of its political defiance against China over their territorial dispute.

The new Hainan province fishing regulations also have the potential to undermine the diplomatic work put in by Chinese and Vietnamese officials to manage their territorial dispute. Last October during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Hanoi, both sides agreed to set up a hot line between their ministries of agriculture to deal promptly with fishing incidents. They also agreed to set up a working group on maritime cooperation.

Although there continue to be isolated incidents involving Chinese state vessels and Vietnamese fishing boats, the number of incidents reported publicly as of last year appears to have declined sharply. The new fishing regulations raise the prospect of reversing this trend.

Immediately after Hainan province issued these new regulations, many of the affected countries sought clarification from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Philippines was the most vociferous in criticizing the Hainan fishing regulations. In a statement issued on January 10, the Department of Foreign Affairs stated that the new regulations “escalates tensions, unnecessarily complicates the situation in the South China Sea and threatens the peace and stability of the region.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State similarly declared, “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.”

Although initially remaining silent on the manner, Vietnam finally responded to the fishing regulations a few days after Vietnam and China held their first round of consultations on the joint development of maritime resources in Beijing as a follow up to Premier Li’s visit last year. A government spokesperson in Hanoi called the new regulations “illegal and invalid” and stated, “Vietnam demands that China abolish the above said erroneous acts, and practically contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to criticism in the same manner they have dealt with complaints in the past. In China’s view, the actions by government authorities were “totally normal and part of the routine for Chinese provinces bordering the sea to formulate regional rules according to the national law to regulate conservation, management and utilization of maritime biological resources.”

Two question marks hang over future developments. First, will China move to create an ADIZ over the South China Sea? Last November when China’s Defense Ministry announced the ADIZ over the East China Sea it also stated, “China will establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations.”

The second question is what impact the fallout from this latest development will have on forthcoming consultations between China and ASEAN on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. In the past some members of ASEAN privately disassociated themselves from the Philippines’ public criticism of China. If ASEAN cannot reach consensus on how to respond to China’s new assertiveness in the South China Sea, this will play into Beijing’s hands.

January 18, 2014 at 14:20

The correct question to ask is: Are the other parties squatters in those disputed islands illegally fishing in Chinese areas? If China enforce it, it simply means China is tired of giving a free ride to the other countries who won’t compromise.
As I see it, the whole SCS is too complex, everybody fishing all over each other territories before we have this fancy UNCLOS and everybody have documents to making claims superior to the other, some even fake it. Yeah, you say China, China say Philippines. So just compromise and get over it!

January 16, 2014 at 23:34

This is another step of China trying to impose a strategic control over all the waters and air space near it. China might feel that its just doing what it feels is strategic necessity, and try to force the smaller nations around it into a quasi-vassalage, but I just don’t think that is going to go over in the modern world. Roughly 30% of American’s foreign commerce goes from and to nations China is impacting with these moves in the maritime environments east and south. China considers it a vital strategic interest to gain legal and power control over these environs, but it is a vital strategic interest for the USA for those environs to stay free and open so our trade partners and allies in the area are left to conduct their own national interest. This is going to heat up slow and steady. China likely thinks that if it can take the issue slow enough, and applying pressure on a number of fronts it will be like slow cooking a lobster. I fear they are going to miscalculate or eventually discover their neighbors have limits, then its a shooting war. They have already seen that playing these games with the Russians up in the Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk, leads to shooting incidents. Other nations are more patient than Russia is, just because those other nations fear China’s power. But fear eventually pushes people to react with hostility.

January 16, 2014 at 11:08

CCP(Chinese Communist(Capitalist) Party) is still testing the waters for what they want to be the “new normal”.
This will again backfire like the Air Defense Identification Zone(ADIZ) . A famous “50 cent party” member here would like to say “All Bark no Bite”.

January 15, 2014 at 15:45

The solution: Japan have to make nuclear weapon and help other South Est Asian countries to make nuclear weapon as well. In case there is an atom war, no one can win if all are equipped with atom.

January 15, 2014 at 01:04

It is interesting that the world is starting to realize that China is using pirates’ tactics.
The Vietnamese fishermen were detained without having had their day in court to defend the “allegations of illegal fishing,”which were even referred and reported by the Chinese media. Furthermore, Chinese authorities arbitrarily confiscated one fishing boat that is worth about $20,000, more than a lifetime saving of an ordinary Vietnamese citizen.
or example, 139 fishermen were seized and nine boats were confiscated last year, resulting in a total loss of VND2 billion (US$96,150), he said.
Why is the detention of Vietnamese fishermen by Chinese Navy considered an act of piracy?

Is Firing At Unarmed Fishing Boat By Chinese Naval Forces Reasonable and Appropriate?

January 15, 2014 at 00:51

It is interesting that the article considers state act of piracy.
Why is the detention of Vietnamese fishermen by Chinese Navy considered an act of piracy?

Kangmin Zheng
January 14, 2014 at 09:09

It would be a poor decision by Red China to push the Japanese, South East Asia and American people to hard. There may be hard feelings between China and Japan but that is old news. We have overcome this in America so China can get over it too. Red China may have many people to throw into a conflict with another country but rest assured an all out conflict would not require many people to carry out. Just need many people on the receiving end of the conflictor!!!

average chinese
January 14, 2014 at 07:12

China wants a war, we have been preparing for one for a decade at most, it’s the only way our CCP can maintain power in China. We have enough people to sacrifice as cannon fodder. the CCP doesn’t'r care about the Chinese people, only power.

January 14, 2014 at 01:52

Greed, Ignorance and Arrogance, that is what is fueling China’s voracious an illegal acts.

January 14, 2014 at 01:30

i still don’t understand their 9 dash claim. this is very much an act of war against the south east nations

Jen Whitten
January 13, 2014 at 22:43

Another step on the road to war.

January 14, 2014 at 02:17

Well, war is what we seek!

Jen Whitten
January 14, 2014 at 08:45

You may, I don’t. The US outclasses China at sea and in the air so China will use the one thing it has in it’s favor: ground forces. China will do the same as Japan did in WW2 and will overrun South East Asian nations in an attempt to neutralize them as US allies and attempt to gain control of the Malacca and Sunda Straits. 85% of China’s energy imports come by that route and the US may try to interdict them in an attempt to disable China’s war machine. But US casualties resulting from resisting China’s infantry will be higher than US public opinion is willing to tolerate. The Communist Party will be counting on that to ensure that the US does not get involved in the first place. But should the US, Japan and their allies mobilize to resist China, China will almost certainly lose the conventional war, but if it turns nuclear then all bets are off.

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