MANILA, Philippines—A city in southern China plans to extend a tourist route to the disputed Spratly Islands in the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea), a move that could ease tensions among countries in the region with rival territorial claims in the strategic waterway.
Tourism is globally recognized as a nonpolitical activity, and the World Tourism Organization promotes it to foster friendship and understanding among nations, even between nations quarreling over territory in such important parts of the globe as the West Philippine Sea.
The West Philippine Sea is home to major sea-lanes vital to global trade. Why not tourism, too?
Filipino and Chinese fishermen have for years been exchanging visits to each other’s boats, singing together and sharing drinks, in the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province. Their governments didn’t know, until Filipino fishermen began talking about it when Philippine and Chinese ships began facing off with each other after Philippine authorities accosted Chinese fishermen over alleged poaching at the shoal.
Cruise to Spratlys
Chinese state media reported on Saturday that Sanya City, a famed tourist destination in the southern Chinese province of Hainan, is planning to include the island chains of Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratlys) in a cruise route under a 10-year tourism development plan.
The report by state news agency Xinhua published in the English edition of the China Daily said the planned route extends the luxury cruise lane being tested out in Xisha Islands (Paracels), one of the major island groups in the West Philippine Sea.
Quoting local officials, Xinhua said the 2012-2022 Sanya City tourism plan “has passed the expert panel’s evaluation and is waiting to be endorsed by the provincial authorities” in Hainan.
Earlier this year, Sanya City tourism officials tested out a cruise to Yongxing (Woody Island), the main island in the Paracel chain. The Paracels are expected to be opened to tourists within the year, the report said.
The 10-year tourism development plan looks at including two other parts of the West Philippine Sea island chains, Macclesfield Bank and the Spratlys, in the cruise lane.
It should draw no opposition from other claimants in the West Philippine Sea as long as China does not oppose reciprocal plans from countries in the region with tourism industries.
China is claiming almost all of the Spratlys, parts of which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Asked about the Chinese announcement, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez said, “We don’t have complete information on that yet.”
Earlier this year, China established Sansha City on Woody Island, in the Paracels, to administer the island chain and the Spratlys, drawing protests from the Philippines and Vietnam.
Sanya City’s announcement came three days after Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, speaking at a joint news conference with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said China would ensure “freedom and safety of navigation” in the West Philippine Sea.
The DFA said it took Yang’s statement “with guarded optimism,” and asked China to clarify whether it was asserting ownership of the whole of the Spratlys or expressing respect for international law.
The Philippines also reiterated that China’s claim in the Spratlys is “excessive.”
“No state can arrogate unto itself the unilateral right to determine or assure the existence or nonexistence of the freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea,” the DFA said in a statement issued Thursday night. “Rather the freedom of navigation is an established right that commands respect from everybody as a matter of international obligation.”
Apart from conflicting claims to the islands in the Spratlys, the Philippines and China are also disputing ownership of Recto Bank and Panatag Shoal in two other parts of the West Philippine Sea.
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