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China to expand fleet to patrol disputed seas

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has launched a new inspection vessel to strengthen marine patrols and 36 more will be added to boost China’s presence in disputed waters, state media said on Wednesday.

Ties between China and Japan, the two biggest Asian economies, tumbled last month after the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain by the Japanese coast guard after their boats collided near disputed islands in East China Sea.

“This will be highly significant and useful in strengthening China’s maritime inspection equipment capacity,” Li Lixin, regional director of South China Sea affairs of China’s State Oceanic Administration, said of the new vessels, according to Xinhua news agency.

China has about 260 oceanic surveillance vessels, including 200 small coastguard boats, an official in the national ocean administration told Reuters.

Japan has 421 patrol boats and 13 survey ships, a Japanese Coast Guard spokeswoman said, adding not all of these boats are focused on areas that China also claims.

Along with a long-standing dispute over the disputed islands, Japan is worried that China has started holding back shipments of rare earth metals, vital in making electronic goods and auto parts.

China has denied cutting shipments to Japan for political reasons, and says it restricts overall production and exports of rare earths to avoid depleting its reserves and causing harm to the environment.

Reporting by Huang Yan and Chris Buckley; Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota in Tokyo; Editing by Nick Macfie