China's military is organising its first public trip to the Paracels, in the country's latest push for civilian engagement in the disputed islands.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) will let three readers of its official newspaper accompany the navy for a visit this month, it announced on Thursday, amid persistent tensions over the South China Sea.
"This April, we have a date with Xisha," the PLA Daily said, referring to the Paracels by its Chinese name. "Come with us on this journey; hear moving stories from the defenders of our sea borders."
To qualify, readers have to post comments about the Paracels on the PLA Daily's mobile phone app, or on its social media accounts on WeChat or Weibo.
A representative from the newspaper told The Straits Times yesterday that it will pick three lucky winners to go on a three-day tour, departing on a navy vessel from the southern beach resort of Sanya on Hainan island.
Besides interacting with PLA personnel, the trio will be able to visit a few Paracel islands. They include Woody Island, the largest in the chain, on which China controversially established a city called Sansha to "govern" the South China Sea and its surrounding waters in 2012.
Journalists from Xinhua, CCTV and People's Daily will be on the trip as well, said the PLA Daily representative. About 400 people have responded on the mobile phone app after one day. Figures for WeChat and Weibo participants were not available.
"The soldiers protecting the southernmost point of our motherland are the most lovable, most hard-working people. I salute you!" one reader wrote on the mobile app, echoing the nationalistic sentiments of many others in the thread.
The readers' contest comes as China looks to ramp up civilian visits and facilities on the islands, as part of efforts to stamp its claim on the South China Sea.
Last month, Sansha Mayor Xiao Jie said that Woody Island's airport is expected to begin receiving passenger planes this year and inter-island cruises will be explored to push tourism on the island.
Such moves are likely to irk fellow Paracels claimant Vietnam, which is involved in an ongoing spat over a controversial Chinese oil rig. China claims almost all of the South China Sea and has controlled the Paracels since 1974.
Although it began increasing reclamation and building works after forming Sansha, the civilian infrastructure and activities remain out of bounds to foreigners. Only mainland Chinese are eligible to join the PLA Daily's contest or to go on passenger cruises that have been running to the Paracels since 2013.
The Hainan authorities claimed no knowledge of a report by Taiwanese daily China Times on Wednesday that China is organising a maiden visit for foreign Beijing-based journalists to Woody Island.
Separately, the nationalistic Global Times hit out at Japan, which it calls an "outsider", for "dragging" the South China Sea dispute into an upcoming Group of 7 forum.
Japanese media recently reported that the foreign ministers of G-7, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States, were expected to express concern over China's construction work and military deployment in the South China Sea.
In an editorial yesterday, the Global Times said the G-7 should focus on the global economy, which is the theme of the conference that begins tomorrow.
"Strengthening cooperation with China will be in the interest of the G-7," it said. "Intensifying political issues to thwart China-G-7 economic cooperation is unwise."