U.S. Calls China’s New South China Sea Defense Zone ‘Potentially Dangerous’

A fishing boat in Hong Kong heading towards the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea

Kin Cheung/AP

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A fishing boat in Hong Kong heading towards the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea

First by air, now by sea. China's new Marine Defense Identification Zone that took effect on Jan. 1 is called a giant sea grab and has drawn the United States' ire. By Heather Timmons

China’s recent announcement that foreign fishing vessels traveling in disputed areas of the South China sea need to seek permission from China first has been dismissed as “provocative and potentially dangerous” by the US, “threatening the existing international order” by Japan and dangerous to “peace and stability” by the Philippines.

The marine zone which China says it controls ”appears to enclose an area covering roughly 80%” of the South China Sea, a  US Congressional report notes (pdf). The controversial claim, which dates back to 19TK but is receiving heightened attention due to China’s latest push, does not respect international agreements on water rights and and violates the claims of its neighbors under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea guidelines. The BBC mapped the overlapping claims to the region:

Coming on the heels of a similar announcement about the China’s rights in the air in the region, the declaration has hiked fears that China’s territorial claims will ultimately lead to military conflict in the tense region.

(Read more: Is This Submerged Rock East Asia’s Next Flashpoint?)

China’s official notice about fishing in the area was published in December (link in Chinese) by the government of Hainan province, and not provide much clarity about the area in question or any consequences of violating China’s directive. It states:

Foreign fishing vessels entering waters under the jurisdiction of the province for fisheries production or fishery resources survey activities shall be approved by the competent department of the State Council.

Violators will have their catch and fishing equipment confiscated, and be filed 500,000 RMB ($83,000), The China Times reported today (link in Chinese).

So far, China has responded to the criticism with a shrug. In a press conference on Jan. 10, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said the rules were identical to China’s “Fisheries Law” of 1986. “It is not the problem with the laws and regulations, but the interpreter’s own psychological problem,” she said.

An English-language version of the 1986 law does, in fact, say that foreign vessels “must obtain permission from the relevant department under the State Council before entering the territorial waters of the People’s Republic of China to carry on fishery production or investigations of fishery resources.”

What’s important now is whether China is serious about enforcing a 27-year-old claim—and what the potentially scary consequences might be.

Jennifer Chiu contributed reporting.

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