Soon thereafter Peter Lee, who writes the China Matters blog, forwarded me the Chinese-language transcript of a Q-and-A at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In that session, the (Chinese) reporter asked about a change in policy toward "foreign fishing boats" (外国渔船), not seaborne traffic in general. But the spokesman's answer -- spokesmen have the same skills worldwide! -- was vague.
Lee follows with a very detailed parsing of what is known, and not, about the thinking behind the new Chinese policy, based on available Chinese-language texts. I offer it for two reasons: For people following the substance of this dispute, it should be interesting; and for everyone else, it helps illustrate the ongoing difficulty of being sure exactly what "signals" different parts of the Chinese government are sending to the outside world (and to other groups in China) and why. Lee writes, starting with the "fishing boat" question:
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website press conference transcript is lovingly redacted and edited to conform to the message MOFA is trying to put out. If the question as posted said "fishing boats", I would like to think it's because that's what MOFA wanted it to say.
But, having said that, looking at the reports on the new regulations, they don't appear to be targeted at fishing boats (or transit vessels or the 7th Fleet for that matter):
1) They are part of an upgrade/clarification of coast guard regs throughout China. Media reports show that, for instance Hebei and Zhejiang have also issued new regulations at the same time.
2) It appears their target is nationalist demonstrators from neighboring nations intent on island-related mischief. The main purpose of the new regs is to establish a clear public policy allowing for the Coast Guard to take action against people who try to land on the islands or sail around the islands and piss off the PRC (like the Taiwanese and Hong Kong demonstrators did to Japan around the Senkakus). I'm assuming that's the reason why the Coast Guard announced it is not going to permit any "hooliganism" (寻衅 滋事)inside China's claimed territorial waters (a catchall term for activity without a clearly identified legitimate purpose, according to the PRC and in this case probably includes spraying coast guard vessels with fire hoses, hotdogging, etc.).
3) So the new regs forbid crossing borders or entering ports without permission; illegal island landings; messing with facilities on islands China claims; propaganda that violates China's sovereignty or national security. The regs are written not to impinge on lawful freedom of transit. The Coast Guard is only supposed to go after ships that illegally "stop or drop anchor" while transiting.
4) I think the reason why the Hainan regulations were given such prominence is because the PRC wanted to put the Philippines and Vietnam on notice that sending out nationalist armadas/landing parties to contested islands would elicit an escalating response from the Chinese. Going after demonstrators in an organized, legalistic way (instead of ad hoc reactive response) is a relatively cheap and easy way for the PRC to assert and demonstrate effective sovereignty of the areas it claims. One could call this escalation, and/or an attempt to set clear ground rules to help avoid conflict.
5) I see the intent of the regulations as written is to promote the PRC's idea of routine, lawful maritime enforcement. It will be interesting to see how energetically this is spun as "PRC violates freedom of navigation".
6) Maybe MOFA screwed up, or maybe they wanted a chance to frame the question as a low-key issue of "fishing boats" to keep the disruptive "island demonstrators" issue off the table.
Now you know -- or at least have a sense of the triangulating / guessing / thread-following exercise the rest of the world goes through in assessing Chinese developments. For a more ominous reading, see the reaction today from an ASEAN diplomat.
Update; Another let's-calm-down assessment is here.