China apprehending boats weekly in disputed South China Sea

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese patrols enforcing disputed new fishing rules in the South China Sea are apprehending foreign boats on a weekly basis, Communist Party officials said on Thursday.

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In comments that provide the first window on how China is enforcing new rules criticized by Washington, the party secretary for Hainan Island said Chinese patrols attempted to peacefully negotiate with vessels that initially ignored warnings to leave Chinese waters.

“First of all we would try to dissuade them, tell them to get out, this is our area, and then we negotiate and dissuade as much as possible,” Luo Baoming, party secretary for Hainan province, said on Thursday.

The Philippines and Vietnam have accused Chinese patrol vessels of firing water cannon and using aggressive means to intimidate and threaten its fishermen near disputed areas.

Luo said that authorities based in Sansha city on Woody Island, which administers the mostly uninhabited Paracel islands, were regularly dealing with fishing vessels entering their waters. Also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, Vietnamese fishermen routinely attempt to fish the Paracels, despite hundreds being captured in past campaigns in what Vietnam describes as its legal and sovereign fishing grounds.

Luo did not provide specific numbers but said: “There’s something like this happening if not every day then at least once a week, and the majority are dealt with by negotiating and persuasion.”

New rules issued by Hainan this year, which say foreign fishing boats need permission to enter waters under its jurisdiction, which essentially covers much of the South China Sea, alarmed the region, already concerned by China’s more assertive moves to assert its sovereignty.

The fishing rules follow China’s creation of a controversial air defense identification zone in late November above the East China Sea in an area that includes islands at the heart of a bitter territorial row with Japan.

Ambiguity surrounding the rules - and their future enforcement - have puzzled a nervous region since they were introduced on January 1, apparently stretching into international waters.

Hainan, which juts into the South China Sea from the country’s southern tip, says it governs 2 million square kilometers of water, according to local government data issued in 2011. The South China Sea is an estimated 3.5 million square km in size.

Beijing claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan, Editing by Greg Torode and Ralph Boulton