U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded to questions from reporters about latest official Chinese media reports saying beginning next year police on the island province of Hainan will be authorized to "board and search ships that illegally enter the province's waters in 2013" as part of the latest Chinese effort to "protect the South China Sea."
The announcement, carried in China Daily, is the latest of China's growing assertions of territorial claims to much of the vital South China Sea and comes amid protests from other Asian countries over new Chinese passports with maps showing the disputed regions in the South China Sea as its territory.
"Well, we've seen the same press reports that you have seen," Nuland said. "We are going to be asking some questions of the Chinese government about this, frankly, to get a better understanding of what they intend. So until we have a chance to do that, I think we'll withhold comment given that it's just press reporting at this stage."
On Chinese passport issue, Nuland said it has been raised "a couple of times with the Chinese government" and that the United States will let China speak for itself on it. However, she said "we're obviously joining the chorus of countries who are urging the Chinese to reconsider the political signal that this appears to send."
The China Daily report said, "If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communications systems, under the revised regulations."
The report said activities such as entering the island province's waters without permission, damaging coastal defense facilities, and engaging in publicity that threatens national security would be considered illegal.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei Thursday asserted Beijing's right to implement the new regulations, saying, "Carrying out maritime management according to law is the justified right of a sovereign country."
China's southernmost province of Hainan administers about 2 million square kilometers, or 722,000 square miles, of the South China Sea, a vital sea lane for much global commerce and also an energy-rich region. Last July, the Chinese military set up a garrison on the island province's newly-created Sansha City to further its territorial claims, although China's regional neighbors the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, have rival claims in the sea.
China also plans to soon add new maritime surveillance ships to work with its South China Sea patrol fleet. In other developments, China last Sunday announced its new J-15 carrier-borne fighter jet successfully landed on the deck of its first aircraft carrier.
Separately, China and Japan are locked in a territorial dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and bilateral tensions have escalated since Japan nationalized the islands in September.
In the passport dispute, the Philippines announced it will no longer stamp its visa on China's new passports but do so on separate papers to express its "protest against China's excessive claim over almost the entire South China Sea including the West Philippine Sea." It said the new maps on the passports are "inconsistent with international law, specifically United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
Vietnam also has adopted a similar step to protest the Chinese passport maps.