Hainan’s provincial government has become an increasingly prominent and active player in the South China Sea disputes. In November 2012, Hainan’s People’s Congress issued new regulations on coastal border security that raised questions about freedom for navigation in the South China Sea (see analysis here and here).
In November 2013, the same legislative body issued “measures” (banfa, 办法) or rules for the province’s implementation of China’s 2004 fisheries law. These new rules, which took effect on January 1, raise questions about China’s efforts to exercise jurisdiction over all fishing activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Current concerns focus on Article 35 of Hainan’s new fishing rules. This article states that “foreigners or foreign fishing ships entering sea areas administered by Hainan and engaged in fishery production or fishery resource surveys should receive approval from relevant departments of the State Council.” As the news report announcing the new rules indicated, the “sea areas administered by Hainan” constitute 2,000,000 square kilometers, more than half of the South China Sea. If implemented, the measures would constitute an effort to control fishing in the entire region in a manner that is clearly inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
In assessing the potential implications of these measures for the disputes in the South China Sea, several points bear consideration. All told, the new measures reflect part of a continuing effort to affirm and reaffirm China’s claims in the South China Sea, but are unlikely in the short to medium term to result in a sustained Chinese effort to control fishing in these vast waters.
To start, the new measures do not contain any new language regarding foreign fishing vessels in waters that China claims. In fact, the Hainan rules simply repeat almost verbatim Section Two, Article 8 of China’s 2004 fisheries law, which states that foreign fishing vessels operating in sea areas administered by China should receive approval from relevant State Council departments. That is, the new Hainan rules affirmed the application of the 2004 national law to Hainan’s waters (which were already covered by the 2004 law). Importantly, the recent Hainan rules do not outline or articulate a new policy position regarding foreign fishing vessels in Chinese claimed waters.
In addition, the 2013 rules do not mark the first time that Hainan has sought to regulate the activities of foreign fishing vessels in its waters. In previous editions of the implementing measures issued for China’s national fisheries law in 1993 and 1998, Hainan’s legislature also required that foreign fishing vessels receive permission to operate in the province’s waters.
Likewise, apart from Article 35, the other forty articles in the newly issued rules discuss rather mundane fishing issues and not the policing of Hainan’s waters. Various topics include fish-farming, fishing methods, the protection of fish stocks and so forth. One rule, for example, sets the minimum length for the catch of various species (e.g., 18 centimeters for lobsters). In other words, the main purpose of the implementing measures appears to be strengthening the regulation of fishing for an island province with a large fishing industry, not further bolstering China’s claims to fishing rights in the South China Sea.
Finally, the 2013 Hainan implementing measures do not state how the province intends to regulate the presence of foreign fishing vessels. Apart from stating that foreign fishing vessels must receive State Council approval to operate in Hainan’s waters, the measures do not discuss how the province will police foreign fishing vessels, including which agencies would be responsible for this mission or what rules of engagement would be used. The sheer size of the waters nominally under Hainan’s administration indicates that actual implementation of these new rules would be a daunting operational task, especially giving the various missions assigned to the newly-formed Chinese Coast Guard.
Any effort to implement these rules would also have to be balanced against China’s relations with other states adjacent to the South China Sea. In 2009, China aggressively policed foreign fishing vessels around the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. In particular, China seized or detained 33 Vietnamese fishing boats with 433 Vietnamese fishermen. China’s assertive actions worsened ties with Vietnam, which subsequently improved after 2011. Clashes between the Chinese authorities and Vietnamese fishing vessels have declined significantly (though some still occur) and the two sides have established a hotline to deal with fisheries issues.
Looking forward, the reference to foreign fishing vessels in Hainan’s new fishing rules reflects a continued desire to affirm Chinese claims in the South China Sea and to do so in a way that is inconsistent with UNCLOS. Nevertheless, the key question is whether China is able – or even willing – to implement the new rules actively and aggressively throughout these waters.