In a move that has faced fierce opposition from Hanoi, China opened a new route for cruise ships to sail to the Paracel Islands one week after welcoming a high-ranking member of the Vietnamese Communist Party to Beijing.
“Vietnam has incontestable sovereignty over the Paracel Islands,” Le Hai Binh, the Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement Thursday.
The opening of the cruise route violates the resolution on China-Vietnam maritime issues signed in October 2011 and the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, the spokesman said in the statement.
Vietnam maintains the new route will only further complicate the status quo in the East Sea – the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea – and the region.
“Vietnam demands that China immediately halt such wrongful activities,” the statement read.
The Coconut Princess embarked on its maiden voyage to the islands on Tuesday from Sanya, a city popular with tourists in the southern island province of Hainan, according to a Reuters report that cited China's official news agency Xinhua.
The four-day cruise will take tourists to three islets, the report said, where they can "play beach volleyball, dive, fish and take wedding photos".
China began launching cruises to the same islands, on a trial basis, from Haikou, another Hainan port town, in April 2013. Those ships will now follow the shorter Sanya route, Xinhua reported.
China invaded the Paracel Islands in 1974, shortly after the withdrawal of American naval ships. It waged a brief but bloody naval assault on troops from the then US-backed Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam's giant northern neighbor has illegally occupied the islands ever since and the post-1975 united Vietnam has always reiterated its claims to the Paracel Islands and continues to maintain military bases and other facilities in the nearby Spratly Islands.
China opened the new cruise route one week after a Vietnamese special envoy visited Beijing to defuse tensions triggered by the deployment of a Chinese oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in early May.
During their meeting last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Le Hong Anh, a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party's decision-making Politburo, that both countries should be "friendly to each other" to help mend ties in the wake of the oil rig row.
The placement of the oil rig, viewed by many as an “invasion,” triggered looting in industrial parks on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and deadly anti-China riots in central Vietnam in mid-May.
China claims almost 90 percent of the potentially energy rich ocean despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
The waters are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place those who control them in league with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.
Although China withdrew its rig in July, the crisis sent Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging toward their lowest point in decades.
During their bilateral meeting last week, Xi was quoted by Xinhua as telling Le Hong Anh: "(I) hope the Vietnamese will make joint efforts with the Chinese to put the bilateral relationship back on a track toward development. A neighbor cannot be moved away and it is in the common interests of both sides to be friendly to each other."
Independent analysts, however, doubted the meeting would herald a major breakthrough in Sino-Vietnamese relations.
“This certainly signals a relaxing of recent tensions, but not a long-term thaw in ties,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Thanh Nien News.
“There is far too much anger and concern still in in Vietnam—both in the leadership and the general populace—for things to return back to the way they were before the deployment of China’s oil rig in May,” he said.
“Leaders in Hanoi now know that even if tensions relax, they will only stay that way until China’s next provocation.”
In recent months, China has ramped up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly Archipelago. Beijing said last month it planned to build lighthouses on five islets, two of which sit inside the Paracel Islands.
“It seems that Beijing wants to reduce tensions for the time being,” said Poling, who predicts China will ultimately pursue unchecked control over the disputed waters below its southern border.
“There is no indication that this signals any change in China’s long-term goal.”