TOKYO: China has announced that it will seek to turn some of the disputed islands in the South China Sea into a Maldives-type tourist destination, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted a top official on Friday as saying.
The paper quoted Xiao Jie, mayor of Sansha, the capital of Woody Island, in the Paracel chain as saying that development would turn certain islands and reefs that “do not need a military presence” into key sites on a “Maritime Silk Road.”
“We will develop some islands and reefs to accommodate a select number of tourists,” Xiao was quoted as saying.
Xiao said trips on seaplanes, fishing and diving tours, as well as seaside weddings would be the key draws for tourists.
Beijing claims most of the waters in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
China began allowing tourist cruises to the area in 2013 in an effort to buttress its claims to the South China Sea—where it has conducted a massive land-reclamation program—by touting the civilian infrastructure there.
Woody Island is China’s administrative base for islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea.
Beijing has deployed surface-to-air missiles and advanced radar systems to the island, a move analysts have said is a potential game changer that could ultimately lay the groundwork for the creation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the disputed waters.
The China Daily report said 65 trips were made last year, with 16,000 passengers journeying to the area.
It was unclear if foreign tourists would be allowed onto the islands. Currently, only Chinese nationals are allowed to join the tours.
According to Xiao, the cruises are likely to attract people with a sense of adventure and patriotism.
“It is not an easy trip, but many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it,” he said. “They also want to have a taste of ocean life.”
It was unclear if China would open any of the islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago southeast of the Paracels to tourists.
Earlier this month, a popular Chinese singer visited workers and military personnel on Fiery Cross Reef, a man-made islet in the Spratly chain where China has built an airfield and other potential military facilities.
The US and its allies in the region have voiced concern about China’s increasingly assertive moves in the South China Sea, including the building of the artificial islands and construction of military outposts on other islands in the waters.
China denies it is militarizing the area and says most of the work is for civilian purposes.
Elsewhere, Beijing slammed as “groundless” a US claim that Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American spy plane in the South China Sea last week in an “unsafe” manner and urged Washington to halt reconnaissance activities near its coast.
“The Chinese military aircraft conducted identification and verification in accordance with relevant regulations and rules,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a monthly news briefing late Thursday. “Their maneuver was in line with professional standard, and accorded with the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters signed by China and the US.”
The Pentagon said that it was investigating the May 17 intercept, which it said took place in international airspace during what the US called a “routine patrol.”
Media reports said two Chinese J-11 fighters flew out to intercept the US EP-3 Aries aircraft and came so close that they forced the pilot to descend by about 200 feet (roughly 60 meters) in order to avoid a collision. TNS