Vietnam launches special 'sovereignty' cruise, angering China

HANOI (REUTERS) - Vietnam is offering scores of patriotic citizens the holiday of a lifetime with a cruise to some of Asia's most hotly contested islands, in a move likely to stoke its simmering dispute with Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty.

In a special US$800 (S$1,078) promotion offer, 180 Vietnamese will get to see parts of the disputed Spratly archipelago later this month and take part in night fishing, visit a lighthouse and enjoy local seafood.

High-rollers will have VIP hotel rooms and can fly in on their private helicopters, according to the Ho Chi Minh City government's website.

The elaborately worded offer is for a six-day cruise that will visit two reefs and two islands in the Spratlys, or Truong Sa in Vietnamese, which the country has occupied for some time despite rival claims.

It makes little attempt to disguise its political flavour, and comes as Vietnam pursues a bolder agenda in pushing its claims in the face of China's own growing assertiveness.

"Travelling to Truong Sa ... means the big trip of your life, reviving national pride and citizens' awareness of the sacred maritime sovereignty of the country," the promotion said. "Tourists will no longer feel Truong Sa as far away, the blue Truong Sa ocean will be deep in people's hearts."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed anger at the move on Friday. "Vietnam's actions violate China's sovereignty. We demand that Vietnam respect China's sovereignty, not take actions that complicate or magnify the situation, and make proper efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea," he said.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia each compete for jurisdiction of the Spratlys with China, which claims nine-tenths of the South China Sea, a vital global shipping lane with potentially vast energy reserves.

The cruise mirrors those offered by China on ships like its"Coconut Princess", and illustrates a growing civilian presence in the South China Sea as countries vie to cement their competing claims.

China has been criticised for extensive reclamation work and moves to turn submerged rocks into man-made structures. The United States last week said Beijing had placed mobile artillery systems in contested territory.

Despite close party-to-party ties with Communist neighbour China and nearly US$60 billion of annual trade, analysts say Vietnam has taken a harder line since a fresh territorial row erupted last year and wants to boost diplomatic and military alliances.

Its media ran news last month of the opening of a new school on the Spratlys, and Vietnamese troops stationed there joined counterparts from the Philippines in a soccer match.

The cruise is a trial run ahead of Vietnam's tentative plans to put the Spratlys on its tourism map, including scheduled passenger flights, possibly this year.

The description reads like a brochure for a Caribbean holiday. "See 300 species of coral creating wonderful reefs in sparkling colours, in ravishing, fantastic beauty," it said."Watch the sunrise over the ocean, and say goodbye to the sunset in the evening amid the immense sky and sea."

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