SOON after China's declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea roused a storm of protests, it has rekindled regional concerns with a regulation obliging foreign fishing vessels to seek approval before entering waters in the South China Sea. The issue touches on more than access to a fish-rich area, or even the question of how far Chinese attitudes are influenced by expectations of an oil and gas bonanza waiting to be discovered in the South China Sea. The real question, too, is not whether Hainan Island, the source of the ruling, intends to enforce the law. It might well be logistically difficult for it to police enforcement beyond its
22km-wide territorial waters and enforce administrative control over a gigantic area beyond.
What is worrying is that the move is being made in the context of China's maritime claims, defined by the controversial "nine-dash line" in the sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea prohibits coastal states from regulating economic activities beyond their 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones. But the Chinese are seeking to justify the move on the grounds that it predates the convention.
Beyond issues of the law, what is stirring deep concern is the extent of China's expansionist intentions, in the light of its growing military capability - the latest development being an experimental hypersonic missile vehicle that can travel several times the speed of sound. At odds with China's efforts to win friends in its diplomatic jousting with Japan, an impression being created is that Beijing is testing the limits of international reactions through incremental moves to turn territorial claims into geographical facts that in time will become a political fait accompli. This reading of the fishing regulation would reinforce perceptions of China as an assertive rising power.
Once there is distrust, even moves which otherwise would have been seen as defensive begin to look like threats. Perceptions are reality to those holding them. Distrust begets distrust, and the spiral continues.
Beijing needs to take a look at its recent international policies to ask what they mean cumulatively for its standing. It is recognised widely that no new international order will be sustainable if China is not a key stakeholder of it. It is also offensive to the Chinese to hear that they should be socialised into the rules of international behaviour, as if they are some kind of outlaw. But, taken together, its recent moves could turn other nations into a group with enough common interests against China, despite its often repeated promises of peaceful development. Asian nations have a vested interest in the emergence of a China that is big, strong but friendly.