China has sent one of its largest fishing fleets on record to the disputed Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands, AFP quoted Chinese media on Tuesday, amid tensions over Beijing's increasingly aggressive claims over the entire East Sea.
Analysts say by doing so, China is sending a message that it will continue to exploit fishing resources in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
"It is a way of asserting jurisdiction over the area," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the dispute.
A flotilla including 30 fishing vessels and two large transport and supply ships left China's southern province of Hainan Monday for a 40-day trip to the Spratlys, AFP quoted a China Daily report as saying.
Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys "“ an archipelago claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei "“ but the fleet dispatched Monday matches China's biggest ever infiltration of the Spratlys.
China will make "every effort to guarantee the fleet's safety," the China Daily report quoted an official from China's department of ocean and fisheries as saying.
China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "“ Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei "“ are embroiled in sovereignty disputes throughout the East Sea.
China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a position that has been emphatically dismissed as illegitimate by international scholars.
The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.
Vietnam and the Philippines have repeatedly slammed China for its increasing belligerence in staking out its claims in the East Sea over the past several years.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently condemned China for releasing a map and announcing what it calls its 12th Five-Year-Plan of National Oceanic Development, in which it claims sovereignty over Vietnam's Spratly and Paracel (Hoang Sa) archipelagoes.
In March, a Chinese naval ship fired flares at four Vietnamese vessels fishing near the Paracels and set one ablaze before leaving. Vietnam deplored the act, calling it a "very serious" violation of its sovereignty. China shrugged off accusations that the Vietnamese ship had been damaged, saying its actions were "appropriate" and "reasonable."
Manila is seeking a United Nations ruling on the validity of Chinese claims to the resource-rich sea. An unfavorable verdict for China would set the stage for a test of Beijing's willingness to yield over territorial disputes.
Experts say by sending one of its largest recorded fishing fleets to the Spratlys, China expects its actions to go unopposed.
If other countries do not react decisively against these kinds of activities, they will become commonplace and China will be able to consider its conquest of the East Sea a fait accompli.
"The message China is sending is that this is my water and I am determined to assert my rights over it," said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
China's approach to its territorial claims in the East Sea is reflective its military doctrine, which includes "legal warfare", experts say.
"China bases its action on domestic legislation and its own unilateral interpretation of international law," said Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Fish stocks in danger
Experts say upgrading its civil administration over economic activity in the East Sea is China's way of trying to boost the legitimacy of its territorial claims.
Although over 500 Chinese boats have licenses to operate in the Spratlys, the current total active in the area is well below that and has been substantially reduced since the 1990s, experts say.
Instead, China has resorted to industrial-scale trawling in the East Sea and last year deployed its largest commercial ship (32,000 tons), capable of processing over 2,000 tons of seafood a day for nine continuous months.
"Such a step-up in capability will inevitably deplete fish stocks further, affecting Southeast Asian littoral states that rely heavily on the same fisheries," said Euan Graham, a maritime expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Experts say with monsoon season now over, fishing boats will go out to sea in larger numbers, and this usually leads to "incidents" involving trawlers "“ mostly from Vietnam and the Philippines "“ and Chinese patrol boats.
"It is likely that China will [continue] confronting Vietnamese fishermen [found] operating in waters around the Paracels and Filipino fishermen operating near Scarborough Shoal," Thayer said.
Experts are expecting China to impose its unilateral seasonal ban on fishing in the waters around the Paracels.
If all claimant nations could agree to a multilateral fishing moratorium in the area, it could result in boosting food security and be environmentally beneficial to littoral states, and potentially remove one spark from security frictions, they say.
But China's recent track record does not provide fertile ground for such optimism, the analysts say.
"Unfortunately, we appear to be stuck in a winner-takes-all approach to fisheries in the [South China Sea], in which the biggest loss is likely to be the chance of establishing sustainable fisheries before stocks collapse," Graham said.