China asserts control over vast sea area, angering neighbors, U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, during a meeting last month with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at Manila's Malacanang Presidential Palace. The United States has commitments to defend allies in East Asia, giving Washington a stake in the escalating dispute between China and its neighbors over air and maritime access to the South China Sea.
(Aaron Favila / Associated Press)

Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and the United States have criticized China for imposing new access rules for the vast South China Sea, saying Beijing’s demand that foreign vessels get approval to enter the disputed maritime area is provocative and potentially destabilizing.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying retorted Friday that the rules that went into effect at the start of the year are simply “technical revisions” of existing laws governing the resource-rich waters off China’s Hainan province. She said foreign governments’ complaints that Beijing is courting trouble spring from “ulterior motives.”

The latest maritime dispute among the neighbors with overlapping claims to islands and resources in the busy East Asian waterways has ratcheted up tensions in the region, coming less than two months after China proclaimed an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Under the ADIZ, foreign aircraft flying through the zone are required to file flight plans with Beijing, although the United States, Japan and South Korea have flown military aircraft through the region without getting China’s permission.


“The passing of these restrictions on other countries’ fishing activities in disputed portions of the South China Sea is a provocative and potentially dangerous act,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims.”

The Foreign Affairs Department of the Philippines issued a statement Friday saying the unilateral Chinese exertion of control over the fishing grounds “escalates tensions, unnecessarily complicates the situation in the South China Sea, and threatens the peace and stability of the region.”

Taiwan declared that it doesn’t recognize the proclaimed access rules as valid, and Vietnam called the Beijing power play “illegal and groundless.”

The revised rules stem from actions taken by authorities on the island of Hainan, the Chinese province closest to the sea where areas are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

A year ago, Hainan authorities announced enforcement procedures that allow its police to board foreign ships not authorized to enter the area and to seize the vessels, fishing equipment and catch. Penalties for unauthorized access can also result in fines exceeding $80,000, the provincial rules state.

Hua, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, suggested the international outcry was political.

“If someone says a revision to local fishing regulations that have been in effect for many years constitutes a threat to peace and stability in the entire region, it is not a lack of basic common sense but a sign of ulterior motives,” Hua told reporters at a Beijing briefing on Friday.

The regional dispute over a cluster of tiny islets in the East China Sea that China claims as the Diaoyu and Japan as the Senkakus has escalated into a series of air and sea faceoffs. Analysts warn that the run-ins could result in accidents or miscalculations that could further heighten tensions among Asia’s leading powers.

At issue in the South China Sea is a triangular cluster of reefs known as Scarborough Shoal about 130 miles from the Philippines’ Subic Bay naval station. The Chinese call it Huangyan Island and complain that the Philippine navy has been harassing its fishing boats there.

The South China Sea and coastal passages from Malaysia to Russia are of vital economic interest to all who ply the shipping lanes used to ferry more than $1.2 trillion in goods annually between the United States and its Far East trading partners.

China’s increasingly ambitious assertions of sovereignty also reflect a power play with Washington, which continues to wield influence and professes commitment to defend longtime allies in Tokyo, Seoul and Manila.

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat