Provinces and special administrative regions in south China have agreed to hasten the development of the South China Sea, as the country is now targeting a stronger marine economy.

Members of the Pan-Pearl River Delta (PPRD) region, which has led China's export-oriented economy for nearly three decades, signed a cooperative agreement to develop the South China Sea at the eighth PPRD Forum held in Hainan Province from November 28 to December 2.

Fishery will be prioritized in the development process, including the establishment of joint fishing fleets and fishery supply bases in the city of Sansha, according to the agreement.

The region will act as a bridgehead for the country to build itself into a maritime power, said Wang Hong, deputy director of the State Oceanic Administration.

Wang said the PPRD has opened an important window for China to participate in globalization and will continue to serve as a base for China to protect and exploit the South China Sea and safeguard its maritime rights and interests.

The forum attracted government leaders and thousands of businessmen from Hong Kong, Macao and other nine provincial-level regions.

Chinese leader Hu Jintao said at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held last month that China should enhance its capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard the country's maritime rights and interests and build itself into a maritime power.

Liu Cigui, director of the SOA, said "maritime power" usually refers to a country with comprehensive strength in maritime exploitation, marine economic development, marine environmental protection and marine control.

Liu said the maritime economy is becoming a new engine for China's economic restructuring.

The government's determination to develop the marine economy has resulted in a series of efforts, including the establishment of Sansha City in July and the State Council's approval of maritime zoning plans submitted by Guangdong and Hainan provinces for the 2011-2020 period, as well as its approval of a five-year plan for maritime economic development from 2011 to 2015.

However, China's exploitation of its maritime territory is still at a relatively low level, said Luo Liang, a marine economics researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Data from the Hainan Provincial Fishery Research Institute indicated that the potential fish catch in waters administered by Sansha adds up to 5 million tonnes, with fishermen able to sustainably catch 2 million tonnes of fish annually.

However, the actual catch stands at just 80,000 tonnes every year. Gigantic oil and gas deposits lying under the ocean are also waiting to be explored.

The South China Sea's oil reserves are estimated to be around 23 to 30 billion tonnes, with gas reserves believed to total about 16 trillion cubic meters, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources.

In late August, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the country's largest offshore oil and gas producer, opened 26 new offshore blocks for development in cooperation with foreign companies, with 22 blocks located in the South China Sea.

Emerging maritime industries, such as offshore wind power and tidal power projects, will create new growth in the marine economy, according to Liu Rongzi, an expert from the China Institute for Marine Affairs (CIMA).

Emerging maritime industries saw a 25-percent annual growth rate during the 2006-2010 period, exceeding the marine economy's overall growth rate of 13.5 percent. By the end of 2015, emerging maritime industries will account for 20 percent of the entire sector, according to Liu.

The central government has also stressed the significance of environmental protection amid increased maritime exploitation.

According to the maritime economy development plans approved by the State Council, land reclaimed from the sea will be strictly conserved and the establishment of marine natural reserves will be encouraged.

The total length of China's coast measures around 32,000 km, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources. The country also has more than 6,500 islands and islets and administers nearly 3 million square km of maritime territory. 

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