China on Monday officially opened a new fishing port at Yazhou, Hainan Province, to host fishing vessels operating in the disputed South China Sea.

Located approximately 50 km West of Sanya, the Yazhou Bay Central Fishing Port — the largest in Hainan and the closest to the Nansha Islands (Spratlys) — commenced limited operations in April 2015. The port spans a length of 1,063 meters and counts 11 functional berths that can currently accommodate a fleet of 800 fishing boats. Local officials say they hope to expand capacity to as many as 2,000. Construction was completed in June this year.

Starting on May 15, fishing boats stationed at Sanya Port were ordered to relocate to Yazhou. As per official plans, 468 Sanya-registered fishing boats and approximately 1,000 non-Sanya-registered fishing boats and 66 ice-making workshops and traders are to be transferred to Yazhou.

Yazhou Port is located about 260 km from the Xisha Islands (Paracels) and will serve as the main support base for Sansha and Yongxing Island, which “administers” an area of about 2 million square kilometers in the South China Sea.

More than 300 fishing vessels left the port on Monday for fishing grounds in the South China Sea. The opening ceremony coincided with the lifting of the annual fishing ban in parts of the South China Sea.

Zhang Huazhong (章華忠), head of the Sanya Ocean and Fishery Bureau, said the port has “very important significance in safeguarding China’s fishing rights in the South China Sea.”

Several countries, including Taiwan, lay claim to various areas of the South China Sea. In a July 12 ruling, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration announced that China has no “historical title” over waters or resources in the South China Sea. Beijing does not recognize the legitimacy of the PCA and has continued to operate as if it owns the entirety of the South China Sea.

According to U.S.-based defense expert Andrew S. Erickson, the world has not paid enough attention to what he calls China’s “maritime militia,” or “irregular forces [that] have been an important element of Chinese maritime force structure and operations.”

An expanding maritime militia, Erickson says, is one of the many instruments at China’s disposal to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea, allowing it to “vigorously pursue objectives without risking military conflict or creating an image of gunboat diplomacy.”

Erickson adds that Hainan’s maritime militia — and there is absolutely no doubt that Yazhou will serve as a base for those — is “poised to become even more significant,” adding that “they remain widely under-appreciated and misunderstood by foreign observers.” Particularly worrying, he observes, is the high possibility that such maritime militias could be used to undermine and harass freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) by the U.S. Navy operating in the South China Sea.

Edited by Olivia Yang