China ban on fishing as tension runs high
China today launches its annual fishing ban in the South China Sea - a unilateral act that comes amid unprecedented tensions in the disputed area and fresh fears that Beijing is using the moratorium to assert its sovereignty claims there.
The mainland's fisheries administration vessels will seek to enforce the 10-week ban on most kinds of commercial fishing from the 12th parallel north of the disputed Spratly Islands up to the Chinese coast, encompassing waters around the disputed Paracel Islands.
The ban is going ahead despite a diplomatic protest from Vietnam - which claims both island groups - and recent incidents involving intensified patrols by new Chinese fisheries protection ships, some of which are armed with heavy machine guns.
The incidents have included China's largest fishing protection ship, the 4,600-tonne Yuzheng 311, being surrounded by more than 20 Vietnamese fishing and coastguard vessels last month as it attempted to stop harassment of Chinese fishing boats. The Yuzheng - a converted naval vessel - was also intercepted by Malaysian naval ships and aircraft as it patrolled south of the Spratlys late last month, according to mainland press accounts.
Reports of mainland fishermen facing harassment from Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia were cited as justification for the expanded mainland patrols earlier this year.
In March, China also staged its most extensive naval and air exercises yet over the South China Sea.
Vietnam's state press is filled with reports of local fishermen insisting they will continue to assert their fishing rights, including around the Chinese-controlled Paracels, and demanding more government protection.
Diplomats and analysts are closely watching the situation, noting the ban risks feeding into worsening tensions as regional militaries react to China's naval build-up.
The South China Sea is considered critical to its blue-water naval ambitions. It is home to bases on Hainan Island that can exploit deep-water access to the Indian and Pacific oceans. The sea also has oil and gas potential.
When China first instituted the ban in 1999 in a bid to ease pressure on rapidly declining fish stocks, it received relatively little attention. Now, however, it is a different story given growing pressures on resources as well as its strategic importance.
China claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covering much of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels in their entirety. Vietnam also claims all of both archipelagoes; the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim them in part.
'We are all watching and wondering where all this is going to go,' said one senior regional envoy. 'Given recent months, you have to say it does appear provocative ... certainly it provides further evidence that any hope of a binding regional agreement to ease tensions in the South China Sea is now effectively a dead letter.
'What we are seeing is a push for sovereignty.'
In a recent survey of China's growing coastguard forces, Lyle Goldstein, a scholar at the US Naval War College, noted the potential of civilian ships to project soft power but also 'serve to strengthen China's extensive maritime claims'.
'More and better ships at Beijing's disposal will likely increase its confidence in maritime disputes with its neighbours,' Goldstein wrote.
Australian Defence Force Academy professor Carl Thayer, who has tracked South China Sea issues for four decades, said he had little doubt the fishing ban served a wider strategic objective.
'After 10 years, we can see China becoming more assertive in defending and projecting what it sees as its sovereign and economic rights,' Thayer said.
'The use of fishing protection vessels is an excellent tactic ... They are not warships, they are painted white not grey, but make no mistake, they are well armed.
'The problem is that it is not really the kind of unilateral activity that China and the region signed up for in terms of fostering co-operation and not doing anything to raise tensions,' Thayer said, referring to the landmark 2002 declaration on the South China Sea between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Mainland officials and analysts, however, have cited both fishing and sovereignty issues as driving the ban.
Wang Hanling , an expert in maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said there was no strategic goal behind the ban.
'China just wants to protect fishing resources under its exclusive economic zone,' he said.
'In fact, we don't need to take any strategies because China insists that we had sovereign rights and administration in our EEZ in the South China Sea more than 1,000 years ago, which was recognised by our neighbours like Vietnam, Indonesia, but they tore up the agreement in the 1970s when oil and other resources were found under the water.
'We have carried [out] fishing bans many years ago as it is an international common practice.'
When regular fishing patrols were announced in March, however, South Sea Fisheries Administration officials said the move would help underline China's sovereign rights.
Gary Li, a PLA-watcher at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, said he believed the fishing ban now served to create de facto jurisdiction for a Beijing leadership that had been slow to develop resources in the South China Sea. 'It does have a strategic purpose beyond the issue of fishing ... the leadership is desperately trying to create historical precedent, hoping to show that they are largely unchallenged in asserting their sovereignty,' he said.
The situation is widely believed to be particularly thorny for Vietnam, which is struggling to promote regional interest in strengthening the 2002 agreement into a legally binding document.
Hanoi's Communist Party leaders are eager for improved relations with Beijing, its one-time enemy, yet are loath to back down on what they perceive as core territorial issues.
Those contradictions have seen Hanoi accept joint exercises with Chinese vessels in areas of the Tonkin Gulf no longer in dispute, yet also authorise its own naval expansion.
Vietnam announced late last year that it would spend more than US$2 billion on ultra-quiet Kilo-class submarines from Russia - successor to its former cold war patron, the Soviet Union.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan
The number of Vietnamese fishing boats and coastguard vessels that surrounded the Chinese patrol vessel: 20