Countries around the disputed South China Sea are letting travelers visit small islands in the Sea to strengthen territorial claims. But experts say the practice will not be able to continue for a long time because it does not make economic sense.
In early March, a cruise ship from China took 300 people to the Paracel Islands. Vietnam, which has also claimed the islets, criticized the decision. The first cruise ship to visit the islands from China did so in 2013.
In December, a Chinese airline began charter flights from the southern city of Haikou to Woody Island, the biggest in the Paracels.
Malaysia lets tourists visit one of the islands it claims in the Spratly Island chain. Taiwan has also considered doing so in another part of the sea.
Frederick Burke is a partner at the international law firm Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City. He says people from Vietnam are visiting the disputed Spratly Islands to strengthen their country’s claim to the chain.
Burke said they go out on boats “to see what all the excitement is about.”
He added, “I suppose from a marine biology perspective some of those reefs are the fishing hatcheries for the entire sea, and I’m sure there are some interesting destinations for divers."
Traditional tourism is still rare
But experts say most of those who travel to the sea will be patriots and adventure-seekers. They say the travelers must be prepared to travel a long distance, visit a place with little infrastructure and risk being caught in a conflict with another country.
Christian de Guzman is the vice president and senior credit officer of Moody’s in Singapore. He also believes countries are using tourism to strengthen their territorial claims.
However, he says tourism to the sea probably has little economic benefit.
Malaysia has let foreign and domestic tourists visit Pulau Layang Layang in the Spratly chain since 1989. The islet is also known as Swallow Reef. It is used by the Malaysian navy. It has a 53-room diving resort, which organizes chartered flights from Malaysian Borneo 300 kilometers away.
In 2015, a Philippine military general told reporters that his country would begin developing Pagasa, one of the nine Spratly islands it claims.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines claim parts of the sea, which is highly valued because of its fisheries, marine shipping lanes and undersea reserves of oil and gas. China and Taiwan claim almost the entire 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea.
Most new construction is by the Chinese
China has quickly expanded territory in the sea since 2010. It has created at least 3,000 acres of land so that once-tiny reefs can be used for military operations. Its ships also sail regularly in waters claimed by other countries.
There is little infrastructure on many of the islets, except to support military operations.
Pulau Layang Layang is the only disputed South China Sea islet with a large resort.
There are about 200 people on Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island. Most work for the coast guard.
The 1,000 people living in Sansha, a Chinese city on Woody Island, have a bank, hospital and a large food store. But drinking water was still being brought in as of last year. China hopes to attract tourists to the island for diving, surfing and weddings.
I’m Dorothy Gundy.
Correspondent Ralph Jennings reported this story from Taipei. Christoper Jones Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
islet - n. small island
charter - adj. temporary use
chain - n. a series or group of something that are connected
perspective - n. a way of thinking or understanding
hatchery - n. a place where people raise chicken, fish ... from eggs
destinations - n. a place to which a person is going
resort - n. a place where people go for vacations
reserve - n. a supply of something that is stored
entire - adj. complete or full