Beijing's decision to send a fishery administration vessel to the South China Sea did not violate a regional peace agreement, the Chinese embassy in Manila said yesterday.
"We only sent a fishery patrol ship - not a warship (which will) help with fishery and navigational protection," embassy spokesman Hua Ye said in a statement.
The statement - made a day after China's largest fishery administration ship reached the Xisha Islands - was in response to media reports that Beijing is "flexing its military might" against smaller claimants of the islands. The vessel was sent to protect fishing craft around the Nansha, Xisha and Zhongsha islands in China's southernmost maritime territory and demonstrate China's sovereignty over its islands, following the escalation of a spat over them, it said.
In 2002, Chinese authorities signed an agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), calling on all claimants of the disputed islands to refrain from any action that could heighten tensions.
But on March 10, the Congress of the Philippines signed the Philippines' Baselines Law, stating that China's Huangyan Island and some of the nearby Nansha Islands are "under the Republic of the Philippines", eliciting strong protest from Beijing.
On March 5, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi also landed on the Swallow Reef and Ardasier Reef of China's Nansha Islands, in the center of the South China Sea, to claim his country's sovereignty over them.
Experts in Beijing said yesterday the Chinese government's latest move demonstrated "extreme restraint".
Su Hao, head of the China Foreign Affairs University's Asia-Pacific research center, said China could have sent monitoring vessels or even warships, following a series of incidents endangering national security in the territories. But it instead "acted in the most moderate manner" by sending a fishery ship.
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences international relations researcher Xu Liping said the recent Malaysian and Filipino claims were partly "to serve domestic political interests".
The Philippines will have its general elections in May next year, while the Malaysian prime minister has faced mounting pressure after his National Front coalition lost control of the state legislature earlier this month.
Experts also said the two countries had made the claims because the United Nations had requested countries provide details about their maritime territories before May 13.
During the recently concluded annual meetings of China's top legislative and political advisory bodies, Chinese naval officials presented what had widely been considered tough stances on the lingering territorial dispute.
"China can present 10,000 pieces of evidence proving the Nansha Islands are Chinese territory," former deputy commander of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Zhao Xingfa said on Friday. Zhao added the PLA will "by no means retreat" on this issue.
Former commander of the East China Sea Fleet Zhao Guojun said the Chinese navy "definitely has the strength to protect the South China Sea".
Wang Yusheng, executive director of the Center for Strategic Studies under the China Foundation for International Studies, said Beijing's decision to send an administration vessel sent a clear message: "Although we have the ability to resolve the issue by force, we have no intention of initiating confrontation."