BEIJING China will boost its coastal forces by adding ships and 6,000 personnel by 2020, state media said on Friday, a move likely to raise tensions with neighbors staking rival claims to waters thought to hold vast reserves of oil and gas.
The expansion of the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) forces, a paramilitary law enforcement agency that patrols China's territorial waters, was unveiled two days after the country sent its largest civilian maritime patrol ship to the South China Sea.
The moves show Beijing's resolve to protect its "maritime rights and sovereignty" which it says have been increasingly violated amid a rising frequency of disputes, but other claimants are also keen to show they are not backing down.
The Philippines has sent its largest warship -- a Second World War-vintage destroyer escort -- on a patrol that would take it through the disputed Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea, off its main island of Luzon.
"The navy conducts regular offshore patrols and we should not connect the deployment of Rajah Humabon to the deployment of China's maritime vessel," said Eduardo Batac, spokesman for the Philippine Defense Department.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario met diplomats from the nine other Association of South East Asian Nations states in Manila, urging a common position and approach to resolve the South China Sea dispute.
China's maritime forces, under the State Oceanic Administration, will have 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by the end of the country's five-year plan ending in 2015, and more than 15,000 personnel and 520 vessels by 2020, the official China Daily said citing an unnamed senior official. It did not give a price tag.
"There have been an increasing number of intrusions by foreign vessels and planes into Chinese waters and airspace in recent years," the newspaper said.
It said that the coastal forces had logged 1,303 foreign ships and 214 planes intruding in 2010, compared with a total of 110 cases in 2007.
Tensions in the South China Sea have risen in the past month on concerns that China is becoming more assertive in the waters, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A commentary from China's official Xinhua news agency blamed the tension solely on United States wading into the dispute.
The United States' statements had emboldened China's neighbors, "and only then did they dare adopt a ultra-hawkish stance in voicing their positions", the commentary said.
China's claim is by far the largest, forming a large U-shape over most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
This week, Beijing warned outside countries not to step into the dispute, after Vietnam said other countries, including the United States, could help defuse the tension.
China has accused Vietnam of violating its claim to the Spratlys and nearby seas, which Vietnam also deems its own. China calls the islands the Nansha group.
Beijing said last week it would hold naval drills in June in the western Pacific Ocean and the navy plans to launch its first aircraft carrier as early as this year.
The maritime forces have grown rapidly since Liu Cigui, 55, took over as head of the State Oceanic Administration last March after a stint as mayor of the southeastern city of Xiamen.
Liu, head of Fujian's provincial oceanic and fishery bureau from 2000 to 2002, is no stranger to maritime matters.
"Liu Cigui decided to beef up China Maritime Surveillance by adding ships and helicopters to its South Sea, East Sea and North Sea fleets" to safeguard territorial waters and the country's marine economy, a source with ties to the Oceanic Administration told Reuters.
Liu put the output of China's marine economy at 3.8 trillion yuan ($586.8 billion) in 2010, accounting for 9.7 percent of gross domestic output. He did not give a comparative figure.
Maritime surveillance personnel are mainly retired navy men and officers, the source said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
China Maritime Surveillance was founded in 1998, and its duties include protecting the maritime environment.
China has 32,000 km (20,000 miles) and 350,000 square km (135,000 square miles) of territorial waters and internal waters, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Xinhua said China's maritime forces remain "weak" given the country's large sea territory.
($1 = 6.475 yuan)
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Editing by Alex Richardson)