South China Sea
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Fishing fleet on 'risky' mission

Nearly 9,000 Chinese fishing boats set off from southernmost Hainan province yesterday towards disputed waters in the South China Sea as a summer fishing break ended.

Analysts say the massive push is another step by Beijing to strengthen its sovereignty claims over the contested waters and is likely to further fuel tensions in the region.

'A new round of rows over fishing and territorial disputes will potentially be triggered in the near future, but Beijing is still in the most advantageous position,' said Fu Kuen-chen, a Taiwanese expert in maritime law.

The fleet embarked as the provincial government said it was trying to boost the fishing industry in the region, including around Sansha city on Woody Island, which is known as Yongxing Island in Chinese, the Hainan Daily reported.

The city was recently established to oversee two disputed island chains - the Spratlys and Paracels - and an undersea atoll.

Senior Colonel Li Jie, a researcher with the navy's military academy, said that the fleet's deployment was a move to further advance China's maritime territorial claims, following the beginning of regular military patrols in the South China Sea last month.

'China has now decided to change its previous passive stance and adopt proactive measures that include deeper involvement in exploiting the fishing resources in the South China Sea, which it believes is its own territory,' he said.

The provincial government is also helping local fishermen build more advanced ships for deep-sea fishing, and organising ships to visit the contested areas.

The newspaper, under the control of provincial authorities, said Sansha's establishment necessitated these types of measures to develop the fishing industry.

Fu said equipping Hainan fishermen with better boats would encourage them to go to disputed deep-sea areas en masse, assuming there would be safety in numbers if they were confronted by foreign ships.

'The Hainan trawlers could be assembled into fishing fleets to operate on the high seas, which was a common practice by Taiwanese fishermen in the past as a way to stave off or fight Indonesian military gunships that harassed them during fishing operations,' Fu said.

However, such operations will carry inherent risks. 'The deep-water plans for Hainan fishing fleets will definitely reach those disputed waters,' he said.

'These actions would inevitably irk Vietnam and the Philippines; they may take some counter-actions as well, which might trigger further disputes.'

The thousands of trawlers had been restricted to ports during a fishing moratorium, which began on May 12 and ended at noon yesterday.

Fu said that Hainan's encouragement of local fishermen to play a part in developing the fishery industry around Sansha was in line with a 'legal, moderate and unswerving decision' by the central leadership in Beijing.

Fu added that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea encourages countries engaged in maritime disputes to negotiate with each other in an attempt to come to a peaceful and mutually acceptable agreement.

Beijing lays claim to essentially all of the South China Sea, But its insistence on ownership of the Spratly archipelago overlaps with claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.