China attempts to strengthen claim on islands

Sansha is part of the disputed Paracel chain, which China now considers part of Hainan province. Picture: AFP/Getty
Sansha is part of the disputed Paracel chain, which China now considers part of Hainan province. Picture: AFP/Getty
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China says it is opening up a disputed island chain with just one hotel to tourism in another step in its battle to demonstrate that the potentially oil-rich territory is Chinese.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday that people will be allowed to go on cruise tours to the islands known as Xisha in China and the Paracels elsewhere by next month.

Vietnam also lays claim to the islets, sandbanks and reefs southeast of China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

Hainan’s executive vice governor, Tan Li, told a news conference that tourists will eat and sleep on cruise ships and land on the islands for sightseeing, according to Xinhua.

A Hainan provincial government official confirmed Tan’s remarks at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference and said that local authorities plan to open the islands to tourists before the May Day holiday on 1 May. “Detailed information, such as the tourist capacity and travel itinerary, is still not available,” the spokesman said.

There is one hotel with 56 rooms on Xisha’s largest island, Yongxing, which is just over two square kilometres in area and has no fresh water, said the Xinhua agency.

It quoted ship owner Haihang Group Corp as saying a cruise ship that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready for sailing, while a second company is building another one.

“Prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction,” Huang Huaru, general manager of a tourism agency in Hainan, told Xinhua.

Mr Tan said local authorities will build more supply ships and infrastructure in Sansha, including ports, water supply and sewage treatment facilities.

China took full control of the Paracels – a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs – in 1974 after a naval showdown with the then South Vietnam, and there have been incidents ever since. Taiwan also claims the Paracels.

Last month Vietnam accused China of opening fire on a fishing boat near the Paracels and burning down its cabin, charges Beijing denied.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim other parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands. China has a separate dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with its neighbours over the claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

The country lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes along with rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits.

Last year China created a city administration on Yongxing to oversee hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of water where it wants to strengthen its control.

Vietnam said then that China’s actions violated international law.

Last year, China approved the formal establishment of a military garrison in Sansha city, which is located on Woody Island.

The city administers the mostly uninhabited islands in the South China Sea which China claims.