STATE DEPARTMENT— The United States says Chinese moves to restrict fishing in contested waters of the South China Sea are a "potentially dangerous" escalation in the maritime dispute. Chinese authorities say the rules are well within their sovereign rights.
China's Hainan province is now demanding that all foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter more than half of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, where China is facing rival territorial claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the new restrictions run counter to efforts to resolve the disputes multilaterally.
"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," said Psaki.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says there is nothing unusual about the new restrictions.
"As a maritime nation it is normal and routine for China to make rules to regulate the conservation and management of maritime biological resources," said Chunying.
But Psaki says those regulations are without foundation.
"China has not offered any explanation or basis under international law for these extensive maritime claims," she said.
She says U.S. diplomats in Beijing have raised their objections with Chinese authorities as the restrictions may lead to confrontation in disputed waters.
Vietnamese fishermen say they will ignore the new regulations.
Vo Van Trac, vice chairman of the Vietnamese Association of Fishery, told VOA's Vietnamese service that they will not be kept out of waters claimed by Hanoi.
"The new rules will obviously have an impact on Vietnamese fishermen, who will keep fishing in areas of the South China Sea that are within Vietnamese sovereignty," he said.
The United States and Indonesia have been working with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei to resolve South China Sea disputes through the regional ASEAN alliance. But China has continued to move unilaterally on the issue, despite promises to open talks on a code of conduct for those waters.
The new fishing restrictions come at a time when many U.S. allies in the region are questioning Washington's commitment to its so-called "Asia Pivot" of U.S. commercial, diplomatic, and military resources to the Asia Pacific.
"The U.S. should have been the one country who could have stepped in and said let's come to the table and figure this out. We've done nothing about that," said Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "So again I think that's why there are many in Washington and in the region who are skeptical about the Obama administration's real commitment to rebalancing to Asia."
The fishing rules follow China's announcement last year of a new Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed waters in the East China Sea. That zone has also drawn criticism from the United States as well as from Japan and South Korea.