Beijing clarifies maritime search rules

Chinese police can only board ships within coastal zone off Hainan island

BEIJING - Contentious new rules allowing Chinese police to board vessels deemed to be breaking the law off the southern island of Hainan are only valid within a narrow coastal zone, the Chinese government said yesterday, seeking to calm regional tensions.

The regulations, which go into effect today, sparked widespread concern in South-east Asia that China was taking a tougher line on the disputed South China Sea, where several nations are involved in a bitter territorial dispute.

Worries were compounded as Hainan is technically the province that has jurisdiction over China's extensive South China Seas claims, raising the possibility that Chinese police could board ships anywhere in those waters.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said the scope of Hainan's rules, announced by state media in November, represented no change from regulations passed in 1999 limiting enforcement to within 12nautical miles of Hainan's coast.

"What I want to stress is that these local rules were formulated by the Hainan provincial government to strengthen border controls over the coast and maritime management," Ms Hua told a daily news briefing.

"Their aim is to tackle crime at sea and maintain peace on the seas. There is no change to the scope of how these rules are used compared to the 1999 rules," she added, without elaborating.

It is the first time the Chinese government has provided a detailed explanation of where the rules would be applied.

Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan had warned that they could spark naval clashes and hurt the region's economy, while the US government said it was seeking clarification.

Singapore had also expressed concern, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a statement on Dec 3 urging all parties to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to refrain from provocative behaviour and respect the principles of international law.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with neighbours including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea. China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.

Ms Hua repeated that the Chinese government's stance had not changed, and that it advocated resolving the issue by talks between the claimant nations.

"I think that all sides should adopt a fair and objective attitude towards this and be constructive and show goodwill towards the reading of these rules."