China has opened a new fishing port – the largest in the southern province of Hainan and the nearest to the disputed Spratly Islands – in a move analysts said would help expand its presence in the South China Sea. The Sanya city government opened the Yazhou Central Fishing Port on Monday. It could accommodate about 800 boats now, and was expected to be able to handle about 2,000 once the project was completed at a total cost of 3 billion yuan (HK$3.5 billion), the official Hainan Daily reported. The port would be able to accommodate vessels as heavy as 3,000 tonnes, the report added. Hainan had announced in June that it would build another large port on its southwestern coast at Leying village. After its completion in early 2018, it is expected to be able to handle at least 600 boats of 300 tonnes. China enlists fishermen’s help to protect maritime rights in disputed South China Sea To build itself up as a maritime power, China has long been providing financial support for fishermen, so they can build larger boats that can travel further. For its part, the Sanya government has paid over 64 million yuan in subsidies to fishermen, and 25 fishing boats, each weighing more than 500 tonnes, have been launched there since June. Analysts said large ports were also necessary to support this maritime expansion. Lin Yongxin, a deputy director at the Hainan-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said that with large ports, fishermen would be more willing to build heavy fishing boats, which could travel further and confront coastguard ships from the Philippines and Vietnam when fishing in waters near the Spratly and Paracel islands. South China Sea air strips’ main role is ‘to defend Hainan nuclear submarine base’ “By building these large ports, we can offer assistance to fishermen, who are the icons of China’s presence in South China Sea,” Lin said. “And with this support, these fishermen will be able to continue to develop the fisheries in these areas.” This could increase China’s presence in the South China Sea M. Taylor Fravel, MIT M. Taylor Fravel, an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took a similar view. He said opening more ports “demonstrates China’s resolve to continue to fish in the South China Sea, presumably including areas where a Hague tribunal ruled that China could not claim historic rights to resources”. “This could increase China’s presence in the South China Sea, which is the first step towards achieving control,” he said. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry rejected critics’ claims that the Yazhou port would serve as a base for Hainan’s informal maritime militia. The ministry said in a written statement that the new facility was meant only to support local fishermen.