"Board and search" sea rules likely had Beijing's sign-off: official

Wed Dec 5, 2012 4:21am EST
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By John Ruwitch and Michael Martina

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) - New Chinese regulations allowing police to board vessels deemed to be breaking the law off the southern island of Hainan were a provincial-level initiative, but Beijing likely signed off on them, an official said on Wednesday.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with neighbors including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea and U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said the United States was seeking clarification on the new rules.

China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.

The rules passed last week by Hainan island's provincial legislature were partly a response to an increase in Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracel islands, which both countries claim, said Wu Shicun, head of Hainan's foreign affairs office.

Vietnam on Tuesday condemned China's claims as a serious violation of its sovereignty, and planned to set up patrols to protect its fisheries, accusing Chinese boats of sabotage.

Wu, who also heads the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the regulations were amendments to rules in place since 1999 and had been in the works for over a year.

"It was not (initiated by Beijing). Local law enforcement agencies started this," he told Reuters by telephone. But he added: "They definitely would have reported these upward. They'd definitely have sought opinions from the department in charge."

Tensions between China and the other claimants have flared since late November over these rules as well as China's new passports, which are imprinted with maps claiming sovereignty over the disputed territory.   Continued...

A combination photo shows two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippine warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, a small group of rocky formations whose sovereignty is contested by the Philippines and China, in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon April 10, 2012. REUTERS/Philippine Navy Handout