- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China plans to boost patrols in the South China Sea to deal with the growing threat of illegal fishing and sharpening territorial disputes, a Chinese official was quoted as saying by state media Thursday.

The report in the China Daily newspaper follows China’s dispatch last week of a converted naval vessel to patrol fishing grounds surrounding the disputed Paracel Islands, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Hong Kong.

Fisheries department director Wu Zhuang was quoted as saying that additional patrols were needed to handle new “challenges and complications” in overseeing the 1.16 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) of ocean China claims in the South China Sea.

“Faced with a growing amount of illegal fishing and other countries’ unfounded territorial claims of islands … it has become necessary to step up the fishery administration’s patrols to protect China’s rights and interests,” Wu said.

Last week’s dispatch of the converted naval vessel China Yuzheng 311 was given unusually heavy coverage in Chinese media, an apparent high-profile response to reassertions of sovereignty claims to islands in the area by the Philippines and Malaysia, two of the six nations that say all or some of the South China Sea archipelagos belong to them.

That also followed a confrontation between a U.S. Navy survey vessel and Chinese boats earlier this month about 75 miles (120 miles) off China’s southern island province of Hainan, in which the U.S. boat said it was harassed, threatened, and its way blocked by a pair of Chinese-flagged fishing trawlers.

The sides traded diplomatic protests over the scrape, with the U.S. saying it was within its rights and China claiming the American boat was operating illegally within its exclusive economic zone.

Wu was quoted as saying that additional boats would be added to the fisheries administration fleet, possibly including converted naval vessels as well as newly built vessels.

An administration staffer who answered the phone at Wu’s office said the director was not accepting interviews. The man, who like many Chinese bureaucrats identified himself only by his surname, Zhu, said he could not confirm the China Daily report and had no knowledge of any plans to boost patrols.

Territorial conflicts in the South China Sea have occasionally broken out into armed confrontation, although China and the other claimants have sought to resolve differences peacefully under a 2002 code of conduct.

Along with rich fishing grounds, the area is believed to have large oil and natural gas reserves. Island groups also straddle busy sea lanes that are a crucial conduit for oil and other resources fueling China’s fast-expanding economy.

Last week, China protested a new Philippine law affirming sovereignty over parts of two island groups, the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal. Beijing said it “has indisputable sovereignty” over the territories and called the Philippine claim “illegal and invalid.”

Chinese state media also took notice of a recent visit by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to the region’s disputed Swallow Reef to demonstrate Malaysian sovereignty over it, although there has been no formal response from Beijing.

Brunei, China, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim territory in the South China Sea.

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