BEIJING - China will base a 5,000-tonne civilian patrol ship in a city on one of the main isles it controls in the disputed South China Sea and begin regular patrols, in a move likely to add fuel to territorial disputes with neighbours.
The official China Ocean News, published by the State Oceanic Administration, said yesterday that the ship would be based in Sansha city, on Yongxing, one of the islands that make up the disputed Paracel chain.
China will "gradually establish a regular patrol system on Sansha city to jointly protect the country's maritime interests", the report said.
It will continue to build infrastructure on the island as well as a "joint platform for sharing maritime security data", it added.
China's announcement on the civilian patrol ship came a day after a flotilla with China's Nanhai Fleet set sail on Monday from a military port in south China's Hainan province for a drill in the South China Sea.
Military sources said the drill, part of annual exercises, includes combat exercises in the West Pacific Ocean and the East Indian Ocean.
The three-ship flotilla consists of amphibious landing craft Changbaishan and destroyers Wuhan and Haikou.
Fleet commander Jiang Weilie said the drill focuses on testing the combat ability of leading ships, submarines and aviation forces while exploring methods for normalised open sea drills.
China's navy routinely carries out drills in the South China Sea, including that by the country's first aircraft carrier late last year.
Chinese patrols in the South China Sea are generally conducted by civilian vessels. The newspaper did not say when the latest patrols would begin, though it reported that one of their focuses would be on search and rescue operations and the "speedy, orderly and effective emergency response to sudden incidents at sea".
China is in an increasingly tense dispute with its neighbours 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.
It upset the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and the United States this month when rules went into force demanding fishing boats seek permission to enter waters under the jurisdiction of Hainan, an area the provincial government says covers much of the South China Sea.
China formally approved the establishment of a military garrison in Sansha two years ago. Sansha administers the mostly uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that Beijing claims.
China took full control of the Paracels - a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs - in 1974 after a naval showdown with the then South Vietnam, and there have been incidents ever since. Taiwan also claims the Paracels.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim other parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.
China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu islands, which the Japanese call Senkaku.
The Beijing Times newspaper reported that China would build the world's largest maritime surveillance vessel, a 10,000-tonne ship that it said would be larger than an equivalent Japanese ship, currently the world's largest surveillance vessel.
The report did not say when the ship would enter service.