China has granted its border patrol police the right to board and turn away foreign ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea, state media reported Thursday, as the territorial row rumbled on.
The move comes after Beijing infuriated its neighbours by issuing new passports containing a map showing its claim to almost the whole of the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines are refusing to stamp the documents.
The southern Chinese province of Hainan passed new regulations this week allowing local police "to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province's sea areas", the Global Times reported.
Activities defined as illegal include "illegally halting or dropping anchor... and carrying out publicity campaigns that endanger China's national security", the official Xinhua news agency said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, asked about the new rules, said it was "the legitimate right of the sovereign state" to carry out "maritime management".
Hainan province administers around two million square kilometres (800,000 sq miles) of ocean including the Spratly islands, which are also claimed in whole or in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Global Times quoted Li Zhaojie, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, as saying the regulation could lead to stricter enforcement of Beijing's right to expel ships entering its territory illegally.
Li said these rights were granted by a UN convention.
"In the past, when foreign ships broke the UN convention, the best thing our patrol could do was chase them out of China's waters. The new regulation will change that, and give the patrol force the legal means to actually do its job," he said.
China has been accused of ramping up tensions in the area in the recent past, with the Philippines and Vietnam raising the alarm over Beijing's assertiveness.
The dispute took another turn on Thursday when the Philippines called on China to withdraw three ships from a disputed area near its coast almost six months after Beijing promised they would be pulled out.
The vessels entered waters around Scarborough Shoal in April when they confronted ships from the Philippines during a tense standoff.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that while the Philippines withdrew its own ships from the area on June 4, as agreed by both countries, China's three government ships remained.
Asked about the minister's remarks, China's foreign ministry said Beijing has "indisputable sovereignty" over Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in Chinese.
"Huangyan Island is China's inherent island," Hong said.
"It is beyond sovereign dispute. We hope that the Philippine side will make more contribution for the peace and stability of the South China Sea area and stop words and deeds that may make the solution there complex."
The South China Sea includes some of the world's most important shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
Efforts to secure a legally binding code of conduct involving ASEAN and China have floundered for years amid Beijing's preference for handling disputes with individual countries.
Deputy foreign ministers from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are to meet in Manila next month to push for a multilateral solution to the territorial disputes.
China discourages multilateral talks on the issue and has called on ASEAN countries not to "internationalise the South China Sea issue".
However US President Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders discussed the code with Southeast Asian leaders earlier this month.