A Chinese local government has quietly introduced a set of rules that require all foreign fishing vessels to seek approval from authorities to operate in the vast area that Beijing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Analysts said the new rules rolled out by Hainan - the latest move to reinforce control of the intensely contested body of water - represented an escalation of Beijing's jurisdictional claims, and could lead to more expulsions of foreign fishing vessels.
Chinese fishery laws have long stated that foreign vessels need permission to operate in Chinese-administered waters.
In Beijing yesterday, the foreign ministry said that the changes were the second amendment for Hainan since 1993 and were aimed at better protecting the country's fishing resources.
Passed by the Hainan People's Congress in November, the rules came into effect on January 1. They are designed to help the government implement the Fishery Law by clarifying that the law applies to the waters administered by the Hainan government. Parts of these waters are contested by Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
An official with Hainan's Department of Ocean and Fisheries said waters administered by the provincial government covered about two million square kilometers of the South China Sea. This equates to the area Beijing claims by virtue of its controversial "nine-dash line", which encompasses most of the sea and reaches deep into waters other countries claim.
According to a report last month by Xinhua explaining the new rules, Chinese law enforcers would expel any foreign fishing vessel that entered the waters without permission and confiscate its catch. Violators could face fines of 500,000 yuan (HK$635,000).
Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs, said Manila had not been informed about the new rules and was seeking clarifications through its embassies.
The Vietnamese foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment.
The Hainan fisheries official refused to say whether any fishermen had been expelled since January 1. However, Vietnamese media reported that a Vietnamese fishing boat was vandalised and its catch confiscated by a Chinese law enforcement vessel on January 3.
The Chinese foreign ministry was not available for comment.
Carlyle Thayer, a South China Sea expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said that the new rules were the latest example of China using domestic legislation and regulations to advance its territorial and jurisdictional claims.
By issuing the rules, China could force foreign countries to "respond to the legal basis for Chinese claims, thus inadvertently playing into Chinese hands by 'recognising' the existence of its claim to the South China Sea", Thayer said.
With China stepping up efforts to control the South China Sea, Shen Shishun, director of the department of Asia-Pacific security and co-operation at the China Institute of International Studies, said the new rules indicated there would be stricter enforcement in the disputed areas.
"Our navy and law enforcement forces have not patrolled the disputed areas often enough. Now, given the strengthening of their capabilities, they will step up surveillance … That's why we now require foreign fishing vessels to get permission," he said.