China has imposed its annual ban on commercial fishing in the South China Sea, but its efforts to preserve and replenish fish stocks have been met with skepticism. Hanoi is particularly irritated, while Manila is biting its tongue, believing the move is simply another form of Chinese bullying.
Vietnam says the ban, from May 16 to August 1, is “invalid”. The Philippines responded with its own ban, allowing a face saving reduction in tensions amid the month-long stand-off with China over Scarborough Shoal.
Neither believe China is genuinely acting in the best interests of food security, and they suspect its ulterior motive is simply to assert itself over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which has increasingly become a regional flashpoint.
Vietnamese and Philippine claims are on the basis of a U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and a rule that gives maritime nations the right to explore, exploit and develop areas within their 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).
China insists the overwhelming majority of islands of the South China Sea – also known as the West Philippines Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam – fall under its sovereign jurisdiction despite many of the islands being located within the well defined EEZ territorial limits.
However, it says the EEZ convention doesn’t give maritime nations the right to undermine the sovereignty of other countries, adding the disputed waters have been traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen for centuries.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry labeled the Chinese ban as unilateral, while local media have interviewed fisherman who say they intend to ignore the Chinese ban, first imposed in 1999, promising to set sail for the Paracel Islands and challenge the Chinese ban.
This follows the detention and alleged beating of 20 Vietnamese fishermen seized by Chinese authorities while diving for sea cucumbers near the Paracels in February. A heated diplomatic row followed. Hanoi insisted on an unconditional release while China claimed it had acted legally as the islands are within its sovereign jurisdiction.
Most of the islands are uninhabited but are believed to contain large oil and gas deposits. The fishing grounds are rich and the narrow shipping lanes of strategic importance to commercial and military maritime traffic.
In a bid to limit any confrontation in the disputed seas, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has attempted to find an agreement among its members on the Declaration on the Code of Conduct. which would provide a means for dispute resolutions and limit any escalation in tensions. However, China is unimpressed by the document saying it wants to deal with individual members of ASEAN when it comes to sovereign issues as opposed to a united ASEAN front.
Still, as Trefor Moss noted last month, ASEAN is drafting a Code of Conduct governing behavior in the South China Sea, and is due to present Beijing with its proposals in July. China will be under diplomatic pressure to accept the ASEAN formula.
China has also indicated it was prepared to escalate the issue if their latest ban is flouted saying through the official Xinhua News Agency that fishing in the waters would be viewed as “blatant encroachment on China’s fishing resources.”
Ominously, the piece declares “Violators will face punishments such as fines, license revocations, confiscations and possible criminal charges, according to a statement issued by the fishery bureau under the MOA.”