China is to strengthen its presence at sea to protect its territorial sovereignty and safeguard freedom of navigation in Chinese-administered waters, according to the draft of the government’s five-year plan released yesterday.

The commitment comes amid rising tensions between China, its neighbours and the US over Beijing’s increasingly assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

An entire section of the draft plan released at the National People’s Congress was ­devoted to protecting the nation’s maritime interests, with the main focus on sovereignty and security. The ­topic was only briefly mentioned in the previous five-year blueprint for the nation’s development. ­

The pledges include boosting maritime law enforcement, ­ensuring freedom of navigation and security in Chinese waters and “appropriately dealing with infringements” of rights at sea.

Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) also said during his work report delivered to the legislature yesterday that the government would increase its capacity to protect its interests overseas.

The defence budget is planned to rise by 7.6 per cent this year to 954 billion yuan (HK$1.1 trillion).

“We will strengthen in a coordinated way military preparedness on all fronts and for all scenarios and work meticulously to ensure combat readiness and border, coastal and air defence control,” Li said.

Wang Hanling, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said territorial disputes over the South China Sea and US naval patrols near Chinese-held islands in recent months had pushed the government to focus more on maritime security.

“Our territorial sovereignty and maritime security is under terrible threat,” said Wang.

The coast guard is the main body involved in enforcing maritime law in Chinese waters. Its duties also include search and rescue missions, fisheries protection and anti-smuggling and piracy.

“A key issue for the coast guard is that it should strengthen its ­capability to handle emergencies,” said Wang. These included coming to the aid of Chinese fishermen detained by rival claimants in the region, he said.

The draft plan said China would improve systems for communicating with neighbouring countries to boost cooperation.

The government will also draft a maritime law over the next five years to state China’s overall policy and strategy on maritime issues.

“President Xi Jinping (習近平) proposed the Maritime Silk Road initiative, which requires thorough top-level design of its maritime strategy and the need to formulate a basic maritime law,” said Wang, referring to the plan to boost trading links with maritime neighbours in Asia and beyond.

The island province of Hainan (海南) is to receive national support to develop and make use of resources in the South China Sea, the draft plan said.

By ZHEN LIU Mar. 5, 2016 on the South China Morning Post

Read more here