BEIJING (Reuters) - Contentious new rules allowing Chinese police to board vessels deemed breaking the law off the southern island of Hainan are only valid within a narrow coastal zone, the government said on Monday, seeking to calm regional tensions.
The regulations, which go into effect in the new year, sparked widespread concern in Southeast Asia that China was taking a tougher line on the disputed South China Sea, where several nations are involved in a bitter territorial dispute.
Worries were compounded as Hainan is technically the province which has jurisdiction over China's extensive South China Seas claims, raising the possibility Chinese police could board ships anywhere in those waters.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the scope of Hainan's rules, announced by state media in November, represented no change from regulations passed in 1999 limiting enforcement to within 12 nautical miles of Hainan's coast.
"What I want to stress is that these local rules were formulated by the Hainan provincial government to strengthen border controls over the coast and maritime management," Hua told a daily news briefing.
"Their aim is to tackle crime at sea and maintain peace on the seas. There is no change to the scope of how these rules are used compared to the 1999 rules," she added, without elaborating.
It is the first time the Chinese government has provided a detailed explanation of where the rules would be applied.
Southeast Asia's top diplomat had warned that they could spark naval clashes and hurt the region's economy, while the U.S. government said it was seeking clarification.
China is in an increasingly angry dispute with neighbours including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.
Hua repeated that the Chinese government's stance had not changed, and that it advocated resolving the issue by talks between the claimant nations.
"I think that all sides should adopt a fair and objective attitude towards this and be constructive and show goodwill towards the reading of these rules."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)