BEIJING • China will offer its first regular civilian cruises to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by 2020, state media said yesterday, a move likely to irk other claimants to the disputed waters.
News of the planned cruises came as top Chinese newspaper People's Daily yesterday criticised the United States' deployment of two aircraft carriers in the seas east of the Philippines and a senior US State Department official warned that China is using its fishing fleets with armed escorts to bolster maritime claims in disputed territory, calling it "disturbing".
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.
China's activities in the contested area, including building artificial islands, airfields and other military facilities, have fuelled tension in South-east Asia.
The US carriers John C. Stennis and Ronald Reagan began joint operations at the weekend, ahead of an international court ruling expected soon on China's expansive claims.
The US Navy chief said on Monday that the deployment was a signal of the US commitment to regional security, adding that he hoped it would deter any attempts to destabilise the region.
But the People's Daily article said the US has picked the wrong target in "playing this trick on China", adding that "behind this misjudgment is Washington's anxiety and arrogance, and it is the true expression of its hegemonic nature".
The US official, meanwhile, said at a teleconference with journalists in South-east Asia that "it's a disturbing trend to see Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by coast guard vessels, used in a way that appears to be an attempt to exert a claim that may not be legitimate".
The comments came after Indonesian warships fired warning shots and detained a Chinese fishing boat near the Natuna Islands last week. China acknowledges Indonesia's sovereignty over the islands but says the waters near them are its traditional fishing grounds.
China's plans to run cruises in the Spratlys are likely to irritate the US and rival claimant states further.
The island province of Hainan will operate regular trips to the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands, in response to increasing demand, the official China Daily newspaper said, citing the provincial authorities. The trips will begin before 2020, the paper said.
Since 2013, China has run cruises to the Paracels, which it has controlled since the 1970s.
Analysts say China's development plans in the more distant Spratlys would give Beijing its first permanent presence deep in the maritime heart of South-east Asia.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE