Beijing steps up patrols ahead of Asean meeting
With a key Asean meeting looming, state media have stepped up their coverage of China's commitment to protect its claim to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They report increased patrols by surveillance vessels that are 'collecting evidence' of infringement by other claimants to the islands.
The reports, which came as foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prepare to meet in Cambodia on Monday, have raised eyebrows among some analysts. They said China had rarely referred to collecting evidence in the territorial dispute. The language could lead to a harder stance by Beijing towards other nations with claims to the islands and to the forcing of their ships from the area, the analysts said.
Surveillance ships were patrolling as close as one nautical mile from reefs and shoals at the eastern end of the Spratlys, Xinhua said yesterday.
The ships were using advanced technology to 'collect evidence for sovereignty protection', it said.
Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military analyst, said he expected the ships would gather evidence to prove that China's neighbours were violating its sovereignty.
'Beijing has not been doing enough to prove its sovereignty was being infringed. Now it wants to gather proof that its neighbours are engaged in illegal activities, such as exploring for oil in the South China Sea,' he said. 'After collecting the evidence, Beijing may expel the exploration ships of its neighbours.'
Beijing wanted to justify to its neighbours that it had legitimate reasons to take strong action in the South China Sea, Ni said.
Zhang Mingliang, a South China Sea affairs expert at Jinan University, said the surveillance ships might help in archaeological surveys in disputed waters, with the aim of locating relics that prove China's sovereignty.
'I expect the surveillance patrols will become more frequent,' he said.
On Monday, surveillance vessels warned a Vietnamese ship away from the Spratly Islands, although the exact location of the incident was not given in the Xinhua report.
Officers on the Chinese ships warned the Vietnamese ship in Chinese, English and Vietnamese, demanding it not interfere with Chinese operations.
Sovereignty over all or some of the Spratly Islands is claimed by Beijing, Taipei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. In Chinese they are called the Nansha Islands.
Last month, Beijing said the Spratly and Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank would be incorporated in a new prefecture called Sansha City. Its local government will be at a naval base on Woody Island (Yongxing Island) in the Paracels.