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China's recent decision to intercept Vietnamese fishing boats, which were fishing illegally in Chinese territorial waters, is legitimate and lawful, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
Recently, more than 100 Vietnamese fishing boats entered the adjacent territorial waters of China's Xisha Islands and started fishing illegally, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news conference in Beijing.
On March 4, China's related governing bodies intercepted 21 Vietnamese fishermen and two Vietnamese fishing boats, which entered the internal waters of China's Xisha Islands, undertook illegal operations and did not leave after being warned.
The Xisha Islands have been China's territory since ancient times, and China has indisputable sovereignty to the islands.
The Vietnamese fishermen's fishing piracy in the waters of the Xisha Islands violated China's sovereignty and due maritime rights and interests, Hong said.
"The related governing body's decision to intercept and investigate the vessels and crews is a justified law enforcement activity."
The scale of Vietnamese fishermen's illegal fishing is believed to be considerably large, and Beijing's recent decisions were also based on protecting lawful rights, analysts said.
Yang Baoyun, a professor of Asian studies at Peking University, told China Daily that the illegal fishing is believed not to be just a matter of individual choice on the part of the fishermen.
"Vietnam should not either expand its interests in the South China Sea in such a manner or take advantage of other Southeast Asian countries' disputes with China," Yang said.
Beijing demands that Hanoi take feasible measures to strengthen the education and management of its fishermen and stop illegal fishing, Hong said.
Vietnam is "asking for an immediate and unconditional release of the fishermen and the vessels", Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said in a statement earlier in the day.
The incident is the latest in a string of maritime skirmishes between the neighbors over islands in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese Media reports previously accused China of allegedly using force against 11 Vietnamese fishermen on a vessel on Feb 22 and preventing them from entering the waterway to avoid high winds. Reports also said these Vietnamese fishermen had been assaulted and robbed by the Chinese side.
Later, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei used a regular news conference on March 1 to counter the allegations.
China's maritime department had previously expelled from China's waters some Vietnamese ships committing fishing piracy in the waters of the Xisha Islands, he said, noting that China's action was "legitimate and lawful".
AFP and Xinhua contributed to this story.