MANILA/BEIJING - The Philippines is seeking clarification of rules from China's Hainan province that say fishing boats need permission to enter waters under its jurisdiction, which the local government says covers much of the disputed South China Sea.
Such a move, if broadly enforced, could worsen tensions in the region. Beijing claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
The fishing rules follow China's creation of a controversial air defense identification zone in late November above the East China Sea in an area that includes islands at the heart of a bitter territorial row with Japan.
Hainan's legislature approved the rules in November and they took effect on Jan. 1, according to the website of the local government.
It says foreign fishing vessels need approval to enter from the "relevant and responsible department" of the Chinese government's cabinet.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Raul Hernandez said Manila had asked its embassy in Beijing to get more information on the rules.
Hainan, which juts into the South China Sea from the country's southern tip, says it governs 2 million square kilometers of water, according to local government data issued in 2011. The South China Sea is an estimated 3.5 million square km in size.
The Hainan rules do not outline penalties, but the requirements are similar to a 2004 national law, which says boats entering Chinese territory without permission can have their catch and fishing equipment seized and face fines of up to 500,000 yuan ($82,600).
Hainan officials were not immediately available to comment but Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said regulating the use of China's marine resources was a normal practice.
"The goal is to strengthen the security of fisheries resources and to openly and reasonably utilize and protect fisheries resources," Hua said at a regular news briefing when asked about the rules.
CHINA'S TIES WITH MANILA STRAINED
A senior Philippine naval official said the rules were a violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adding China was unable to enforce such measures outside its territorial waters and its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"This is excessive ... I don't know how this will be implemented but it will be effective only within the 200-mile (EEZ) from Hainan province," said the officer, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Peter Paul Galvez, a Philippine defense department spokesman, said authorities were ready to enforce fishing rules in the Philippines own EEZ, which include regulations on the type of fish that can be caught.
Chinese enforcement could depend on the nationality of the fishermen, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing.
"I think Hainan put it out to tell relevant countries we have such a regulation, but how we practice it depends on how bilateral relations are," Shi said.
"If ties are good, the regulation may be loose. If not, we will practice it strictly, which means that you have to get approval from us before entering."
China's ties with Manila have been especially frosty over the South China Sea.
Separately, Japan is set to clarify the ownership of 280 remote islands within its territorial waters and register them as national assets, a move that could rile China.