| Updated at: 1120 PST, Thursday, October 28, 2010|
BEIJING: China is expanding its naval surveillance fleet to better protect its maritime rights, state media reported Thursday, amid bitter deep-sea territorial disputes with neighbouring nations.
An official at the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), which oversees China's maritime rights, said an inspection ship had already joined the fleet and another 36 would be added later, the official China Daily newspaper said.
The ship -- China Marine Surveillance 75 -- will patrol the South China Sea, it added, where the Asian powerhouse has a number of territorial disputes over potentially resource-rich islands.
China insists that it has complete sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims.
In July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- who will pay a fleeting visit to China this weekend -- called for multilateral talks on the dispute, a position that Beijing opposes.
China has also been embroiled in a bitter row with Japan over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea -- known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
Pang Zhongying, an expert on Asia-Pacific studies at Beijing's Renmin University, was quoted as saying that the expansion of the fleet was not an aggressive move.
"It's not that we're taking an aggressive step now, but that we've lagged behind too much for too long, given China's huge maritime territory."
Li Lixin, director of the South China Sea branch of the SOA, said China would build more surveillance ships, the report said.