Tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea as China declared that it would send more cruise ships to the disputed Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in Chinese. The Chinese have been using the islands as tourist destinations for travel-hungry middle class Chinese, however, the islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Background of the South China Sea
The Paracel Islands are a group of islands, reefs and banks in the South China Sea. By far the largest of them is Woody Island, a 2,000 square-kilometer islet inhabited by a little more than 1,000 fishermen. The islands have been disputed since the 1950s. They were first described in Chinese historical annals but were not considered of major importance. In the 19th century, France, making Vietnam into a protectorate, took over the administration of the islands, which remained under French administration until being occupied by Japan during World War Two. They were then given to the Republic of China after the war, and Mainland China took them over after the end of the civil war. However, Vietnam has continued to claim the islands as its own.
In 2013 China began organizing tourist trips to the sparsely populated islands. The Coconut Princess, a small cruise ship with a passenger capacity of just 200, has been offering a four-day trip to the islands. So far more than 10,000 tourists have taken the trip. Authorities are hoping that a second ship will be operational before the end of the year. The cruise will be scheduled to travel from Sansha City on Hainan. The government of Sansha said that due to increasing demand which the Coconut Princess was unable to meet, another ship would be employed. A spokesman for the government also claimed that the goal was to look for “fresh opportunities from the country’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative and will push forward more tourism products to meet the increasing market demand.” He furthermore added that the islands have a number of cultural relics, including fishermen’s dwellings from the Tang Dynasty (AD618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Because the Paracels are in a windy area and are often hit by typhoons and strong winds, they are hardly an ideal destination for tourists. “We need to take into account the capacity of the islets to handle tourists. Cruise ships cannot dock on some of them and the tourists have to be bought ashore by smaller ships,” Xie Zanliang, head of a government tourism company, said.
The announcement, likely to anger Vietnam, follows the latter country’s recent declaration that it would be sending its own cruise ships to the islands. The initiative will offer fewer than 200 Vietnamese nationals a year to take a six-day tour of two reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, south of the Paracels.
Vietnam and China head to head over South China Sea
The dispute has been heating up in recent years. The Vietnamese government passed laws in 2012 making the Spratly and Paracel islands a part of its territory, and the Chinese government did the same. China then began constructing artificial islands in the sea and has been working on building a highly controversial airstrip on the Spratly islands. Last year it deployed an oil rig near the Paracels, which resulted in anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. The riots left at least two Chinese dead and over 90 wounded. As a result of this hostile atmosphere, Chinese residents of Vietnam have been fleeing, some to neighboring countries such as Cambodia and others to Mainland China.
A week ago, Chinese authorities announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy would hold a naval exercise near the islands. The Vietnamese responded by demanding that the plan be canceled immediately. According to the Chinese governmental media, the exercise would take place “in the relevant waters near eastern Hainan Island in the South China Sea.” It was furthermore added that “during the above-mentioned period of time, no vessel is allowed to enter the designated maritime areas.”
The move caused worries among China’s neighbors, but China soon played it down claiming,”Holding sea drills is a common practice for navies with various countries. The annual drill by the Chinese navy aims to test the troops’ real combat abilities, boost their manoeuvrability, search and rescue power and the abilities to fulfil diversified military missions.”
The potentially energy-rich area of the South China Sea is disputed by surrounding nations, including China, which lays claim to 90% of it, plus Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The Philippines recently sent their Foreign Affairs Secretary to The Hague to organize international opposition to Chinese demands and take the country to court. But analysts are divided on how wise that is considering China’s size and economic power. China itself has refused to participate and insists that any territorial disputes should be settled with negotiations between the two parties without involving international institutions.
Other countries like Japan have also voiced concerns for Chinese actions in the area. The conflict, however, remains chiefly between China and Vietnam.