BEIJING (Reuters) - China's fishermen operating in the South China Sea give proof of the country's maritime rights and interests, a government official said on Monday, referring to ships on the frontlines of China's push to assert its claims in disputed waters.
China has come under fire from the United States and its allies in recent months over its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly archipelago.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
Luo Baoming, the Communist Party boss of the southern island province of Hainan, made the comments during the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).
"If it can be said that that we want to safeguard China's rights and interest in the South China Sea, fishermen, because they have been living and surviving on fishing for the past thousand years, have been proof of our rights and interests," Luo said, in response to a Reuters question.
Authorities in Hainan encourage fishermen to sail to disputed areas, and the government subsidizes them in making trips to distant waters.
In recent years, the fishermen have ventured deeper into waters near Southeast Asia in search of new fishing grounds as stocks thin out close to home.
Experts say privately owned fishing boats and commercial trawlers are on the frontlines of China's increasingly assertive push to protect what it sees as its sovereign maritime territory in the region.
"We encourage fishermen to go out, and support them because they need to fish to live," Luo added, saying the government gave them financial subsidies as well as fuel.
Staffers at a briefing by a government delegation from Hainan handed out buttons featuring islands and reefs China claims in the tense region, marked with their Chinese names, and attempted to photograph foreign journalists wearing the pins.
Asked about reports that China is engaging in reclamation activities in the Qilian Yu subgroup of the Paracel Islands, a regional official listed dock-building, infrastructure improvement and "renovations" against erosion and other natural disasters among China's activities on the islands it claims.
However, Xiao Jie, the mayor of Sansha City on the disputed Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago, did not say exactly where the activities were taking place.
China set up Sansha in 2012 and uses it as a base to administer the islands it controls in the South China Sea.
China is also developing infrastructure for mobile internet on 15 of its islands and reefs, Hainan officials added, without elaborating.
Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez