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President Xi Jinping has demanded a full-scale rescue effort after Typhoon Wutip sank fishing boats near the Xisha Islands.
The Chinese president also urged local authorities to step up efforts to find the missing or stranded and minimise casualties.
China’s armed forces are now helping with rescue operations after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for the affected regions to be evacuated.
Rescue efforts had been hampered by strong gales and high waves, according to local authorities.
China’s maritime authority on Sunday upgraded its wave warning from yellow to orange, the second-highest of a four-tier colour-coded weather warning system, as the typhoon approached land.
The National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre warned of storm tides from Sunday to Monday in Guangdong, Hainan and Guangxi.
Wutip is expected to make landfall on Vietnam’s central coast on Tuesday and authorities there have already evacuated people in Central Vietnam ahead of the storm.