China’s imposition of new restrictions on foreign fishing in the South China Sea is a "dangerous and provocative" measure, the State Department said on Thursday.
"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.
"These regulations appear to apply to the maritime space within China’s so-called nine-dash line," she said. "China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims."
The new fishing curbs, covering disputed islands in the South China Sea, were first disclosed by the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday.
The Obama administration declined to comment for the Free Beacon story. The harsh response by Psaki is an indication that the administration is seeking to prevent China from exercising maritime hegemony of the international waters.
The new restrictions went into effect Jan. 1 and were ordered by the Hainan island provincial authorities as part of China's efforts to enforce its fishing laws in the sea, which is in international waters and includes islands claimed by Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
China announced in December that all foreign fishing boats must first obtain permission from Chinese authorities before fishing in an administrative zone controlled by Hainan provinces authorities. The zone covers two-thirds of the South China Sea.
China had declared earlier that a vague "nine-dash line" covering the sea was under its maritime control.
In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying confirmed the new fishing restrictions.
"The enactment of local statutes on the basis of national laws to regulate the conservation, utilization, and management of marine biological resources is an absolutely normal and routine practice," he told reporters Thursday.
The goal of the new restrictions is to "strengthen the protection, proliferation, development, and rational utilization of fisheries resources; safeguard fisheries producers' lawful rights and interests; ensure the quality and safety of aquatic products; promote the sustainable and healthy development of the fisheries industry; and protect fisheries resources and the ecological environment," Hua said.
Psaki said the United States is opposed to the new restrictions.
"Our longstanding position has been that all concerned parties should avoid any unilateral action that raises tensions and undermines the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution of differences," she said. "And clearly, passing legislation that claims ownership over territory in a disputed area would certainly be of concern to us."
Former State Department official and China expert John Tkacik said the department appears to be in the "we’re monitoring the situation mode."
"Which means they haven't figured out how to respond, and aren't even sure about whether the United States should demand an explanation," Tkacik said. "The very least Beijing expects is a strong diplomatic protest with a warning, but this doesn't sound like State Department's willing to take even that limp step."
Unless there is more pressure on China to roll back the restrictions, "Beijing's next steps will be more muscular, and if someone other than the U.S. starts shooting, Beijing will whack them and say, ‘Hey, we told you so!’" he said.
"This isn't going to be resolved by pretending China can't severely restrict maritime and fisheries activity in the South China Sea, so, it's certain to get worse," Tkacik said.
The new rules followed the near collision of a U.S. warship and a Chinese naval vessel Dec. 5 near Hainan Island.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Chinese naval action was "irresponsible" and raised the danger of a military miscalculation.
A Chinese amphibious landing ship stopped within 100 yards in front of the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, forcing the warship to sharply change course to avoid the collision.
The warship was monitoring Chinese naval exercises involving Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and several other warships.
Vietnamese state media reported earlier this month that a Chinese maritime patrol ship attacked a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the disputed Paracel Islands, taking the vessel’s catch and fishing gear.
According to Hainan authorities, all foreign fishing boats must first obtain permission before entering the Hainan fishing control zone that covers most of the sea south of Hainan Island.
The regulations are part of China’s efforts to enforce Chinese fishing law. Under that statute, ships that violate the rules will be forced to leave the zone, forfeit their catch, and face prosecution under Chinese law.
The South China Sea has become a new maritime battleground between China and its neighbors because in addition to fishing resources, the sea is believed to hold large undersea reserves of oil and natural gas.
Chinese naval and maritime patrol vessels conducted a law enforcement drill Jan. 1, according to Chinese state media. It was the first drill of its kind since July 2012.
The drill included vessels and personnel from the coast guard, fisheries administration, and militias. The practice was aimed at "investigating and dealing with illegal fishing."
"Building a rapid response [law enforcement team] will be an effective safeguard for the marine ecosystem around Sansha [on Hainan Island]. It can also provide quick rescue to people suffering in natural disasters," said Wang Shizheng, director of the Comprehensive Law Enforcement Bureau of Sansha City.
The Philippine government said it is investigating reports of the new Chinese fishing restrictions.