Back in November, Hainan Province issued new maritime regulations, including an article stating 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 many, including “Naval Diplomat” James Holmes, pointed out, this provision would apply to over half of the South China Sea. However, experts wondered if China would be willing or able to enforce the regulation. M Taylor Fravel, writing for The Diplomat, noted that the new regulations had no information on how the provision would be enforced. “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,” Fravel wrote.
Now, the question of whether these rules are being enforced seems to have been answered. Reuters reports that Hainan Party Secretary Luo Baoming said that authorities based on Sansha city have been regularly confronting unauthorized foreign fishing vessels. It’s apparently quite a common occurrence: “There’s something like this happening if not every day then at least once a week,” Luo said.
Luo also stressed that “the majority [of such incidents] are dealt with by negotiating and persuasion.” “We negotiate and dissuade as much as possible,” Luo said, although from his comments it seems the “negotiation” is actually an order. Authorities “tell them [unauthorized vessels] to get out, this is our area,” according to Luo.
Sansha city, a prefecture of Hainan province, administers several groups of disputed islands, including the Paracels (where Sansha is located), the Macclesfield Bank, and the Spratlys. Beijing established Sansha as a prefecture in July 2012, in what many saw as an attempt to increase de facto control over these disputed areas. Chinese officials agreed—Hainan’s Party Secretary said at the time that Sansha city would be “an important base to safeguard China’s sovereignty and serve marine resource development.” China has also established a military base on Sansha, and stationed a 5,000 ton patrol ship on the island.
Luo Baoming’s remarks confirm that Sansha is being used as a base to drive foreign fishing boats away from waters claimed by China. The fishing boats in question most likely originate from Vietnam and the Philippines, as the Paracels are claimed by both China and Vietnam and various islands in the Spratlys group are claimed by China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Taiwan also claims these territories, and has rejected Hainan’s fishing regulations.
The Chief of Staff of the Philippines Arms Forces claimed recently that Chinese Coast Guard ships used water cannons to drive Philippine fishing vessels away from the Scarborough Shoal. The Scarborough Shoal is not under Sansha’s administration, and it’s unclear whether Sansha authorities have used similarly aggressive tactics to force foreign vessels to leave. But given the unease caused by the mere announcement of Hainan’s new fishing regulations, confirmation that the provisions are being enforced is likely to stir up more tensions.