The first Chinese tour ship to visit disputed South China Sea islands set sail yesterday, state media reported, a move likely to stoke a long-running territorial row between Beijing and its neighbors.
Plans to allow tourists to visit the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), is the latest stage in China’s development of the territory, which has previously angered Vietnam and caused concern in Washington.
Vietnam and China have a longstanding territorial row over the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan. Hanoi last month accused a Chinese vessel of firing on one of its fishing boats in disputed waters..
Up to 100 passengers paid a ticket price between 7,000 yuan (US$1,135) and 9,000 yuan for the four-day voyage, which is set to become a monthly or twice monthly trip if the maiden trip proves successful, the Global Times said.
Only passengers in “good health, which includes having a normal weight” are permitted on the trip, the newspaper added, in a report which cited the Shanghai Morning Post.
The plan to allow cruise tours follows rapid development of infrastructure in a new city — Sansha — along with the establishment of an army garrison in the Paracels last year.
A named commentary in the Global Times defended the decision to allow tourists to visit the islands.
“China’s Xisha tourism has nothing to do with its neighboring countries,” said Ju Hailong (鞠海龍), a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Jinan University, in Guangzhou.
“Those who want to manipulate China’s moves to make trouble are not admirers of international law and regional security,” Ju said.
Officials earlier this month confirmed they would open up the islands to tourism.
China has occupied the Paracels since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974.
Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea, while the US is also watching Beijing’s increased assertiveness.
In his address opening China’s National People’s Congress last month, former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said Beijing should “develop the marine economy ... and safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.”