Vietnam protests China's plans to let tourists visit disputed islands

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 Fishing boats from Quang Ngai Province's Ly Son Island heading out to sea on an offshore fishing trip

Vietnam is protesting China's plans to sail this month a cruise ship capable of accommodating around 2,000 passengers to the the disputed Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands that Hanoi claims sovereignty over.

The National Border Committee under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement posted on the government website late Friday that Vietnam has "incontestable" sovereignty over the Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) islands.

The cruise ship plans is against he spirit of the talks in which Beijing committed to fully follow the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), the statement said.

"Vietnam demands that China cancel such plans," it said.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials on Friday met representatives of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, the statement said. The Vietnamese officials handed over a diplomatic note "opposing" the cruise ship plans, it added.

China is scheduled to let tourists visit the Xisha Islands (the name China has given to the Paracels Archipelago) ahead of the forthcoming May Day holiday, Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern-most province of Hainan, was quoted as saying by the state news agency Xinhua in a recent report.

People will be allowed to visit the islands on cruise tours, Tan said at the 2013 annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia which wrapped up last week.

Details of the tours will be released on a later date, Tan said, adding that tourists will eat and sleep on the cruise ships and visit the islands for sightseeing.

A cruise ship with a gross registered tonnage of 47,000 tons that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready for sailing, Xinhua said, citing a source from the ship's owner, Haihang Group.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.

China illegally claims sovereignty over 80 percent of the East Sea.

The waters are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.

China's plan to send cruise ship to the Paracels was the latest in a series of unilaterally provocative actions in the area.

Last month, a Chinese ship shot flares at four Vietnamese fishing boats from Quang Ngai Province that were fishing in their traditional fishing grounds in the Paracels, a move that Vietnam criticized as "inhumane and dangerous". 

Analysts have, however, sought to assuage fears that the cruise ship plans would yet again stoke tensions in the region.

"Really it is quite a minor development that should be kept in proportion," said Sam Bateman, a maritime expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"There may be attempts to allow this to stoke tensions, but we should guard against this lest it just serve to fuel nationalistic sentiment in both China and Vietnam," Bateman said.

Analysts say Beijing is expected to further open up the Paracels to tourism, given that cruise ships area growth industry around the world, including China where many Chinese are now enjoying higher levels of income.

"The Paracels potentially offer an attractive tourist destination and a cruise liner is not a bad way of visiting them, allowing tourists to visit several destinations in the islands in their 'moving hotel'," Bateman said.

In 1974, taking advantage of the withdrawal of the American troops from the Vietnam War, China invaded the Paracel Islands. A brief but bloody naval battle with the forces of the then US-backed Republic of Vietnam ensued.

Vietnam's behemoth northern neighbor has illegally occupied the islands ever since. But a post-1975 united Vietnam has never relinquished its ownership of the Paracel Islands and continues to keep military bases and other facilities on the Spratly Islands. 

But Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the dispute, said what China is always convinced is that this is a fait accomplis that the Paracels are its islands.

So what China is doing next "could be anything in the routine of development," Valencia said.

"I would say arresting and/or ejecting more Vietnamese fishermen from the Paracels territorial waters is likely."

In related news, Vietnam also said Friday it objected to plans by Taiwan to expand a pier on the Itu Aba (Ba Binh) Island, one of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, China, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys.

Malaysia has also adopted a similar "tourism" approach to asserting what it calls its sovereignty over features in the Spratlys by allowing tourists to visit the Layang Layang island. The Philippines has too announced plans to use the same approach.



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