BEIJING (AFP) - China's new unified coast guard agency has gone into operation, state media reported on Tuesday amid maritime disputes with neighbours, and experts said more ships will be armed as a result.
The China Coast Guard integrates the functions of marine surveillance, the existing coast guard which came under the police, fisheries law enforcement and Customs' anti-smuggling maritime police.
The divisions "that were not allowed to be equipped with weapons can be armed now", Yang Mian, professor of international relations at the Communication University of China, was quoted as saying by the Global Times newspaper.
"The new agency will also make our law enforcement more powerful."
The new agency will "have reasonable and legal law enforcement equipment" and "detect and rapidly handle in accordance with the law acts that harm China's maritime rights and interests", Mr Zhang Junshe, a military researcher, wrote in a commentary in the People's Liberation Army Daily.
Tensions have been growing over China's island disputes with Japan and other neighbours.
Chinese surveillance ships have frequently approached disputed islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and knows as the Senkaku but China claims as the Diaoyu, after Tokyo nationalised some of them last September.
The Philippines and Vietnam have accused Beijing of aggressively asserting its extensive claims in the South China Sea, although tensions have abated slightly with Hanoi in recent weeks.
With an eye on the rows, the United States has strengthened military cooperation with Japan and the Philippines - which are both treaty-bound allies - as well as with former war adversary Vietnam.
Mr Zhang said the new agency will deal with conflicts in the disputed waters according to Chinese law.
That "will... show the international community that China has undisputable jurisdiction over the waters", he said.