China eyes new cruise link to disputed South China Sea islands

Vietnam accused Chinese boats of repeatedly ramming Vietnamese vessels near disputed waters in the South China Sea where China has placed an oil drilling platform near the Paracel Islands.
Vietnam accused Chinese boats of repeatedly ramming Vietnamese vessels near disputed waters in the South China Sea where China has placed an oil drilling platform near the Paracel Islands.PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (REUTERS) - The Chinese authorities plan to start a second cruise ship link to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, state media reported on Monday, in a move that may irk Vietnam, which also claims the islets.

China began cruises on the Coconut Princess on a trial basis from the southern island province of Hainan in 2013. More than 10,000 tourists have taken the trip so far, the official China Daily reported.

Officials hope a second ship will be in operation before the end of the year, and that more islands can be opened up for visits, the report said.

Those include Woody Island, where the Chinese government seat for administering the Paracels is located.

However, weather and poor facilities could hamper tourism efforts. The Paracels are often hit by typhoons and strong winds, the paper said.

"We need to take into account the capacity of the islets to handle tourists. Cruise ships cannot dock on some of them and the tourists have to be bought ashore by smaller ships," Xie Zanliang, head of a government tourism company promoting trips to the Paracels, told the newspaper.

The deployment of a Chinese oil rig near the Paracels last year sparked a stand-off with Vietnam and anti-Chinese riots.

Taiwan also claims the Paracels.

China claims 90 per cent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the sea, through which passes about US$5 (S$7) trillion of trade a year.

Vietnam said last month it would offer its own cruises to the disputed Spratly archipelago, which lies south of the Paracels, a move that sparked anger from China.

Countries competing to cement their rival claims have encouraged a growing civilian presence on disputed islands.