China's annual fishing ban in the South China Sea is being launched at a particularly sensitive time this year. A large-scale Chinese naval war game near Japan's strategic offshore islands last month raised tensions with neighbouring countries. The naval exercise - comprising destroyers, frigates and auxiliary ships and jet fighters - led to concerns among US, Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese forces in the area as it was seen as a demonstration of the PLA navy's rising might and sophistication.
Chinese authorities have kept the precise extent of the unilateral fishing ban vague. It appears to include the disputed Paracel Islands but not the Spratly Islands, whose proximity is enough to raise concerns among neighbours. Vietnam - which like China also lays claims over both island groups - has launched a diplomatic protest against the ban. Armed Chinese fisheries protection ships have intensified their patrols recently ahead of the ban. This has led to confrontations with Vietnamese vessels in March and Malaysian naval ships last month.
Rising tensions benefit no one in the region, including China. For this reason, Beijing and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed a regional agreement in 2002 to promote a 'peaceful and harmonious' environment in the strategic South China Sea.
While Beijing has imposed the annual unilateral ban for more than a decade, it should be aware of the anxieties its strengthening military posture in the South China Sea has provoked in Asian capitals. The ban may be justified on scientific grounds, that is, to preserve fishing stocks. There may well be a need for such a ban for the future of fisheries in the region. But that case should be made in a multilateral forum such as Asean, rather than being imposed unilaterally. China has always stressed its economic rise is peaceful and its military for defence only. That is all the more reason for it to be careful about the way it projects its power in the contested South China Sea.