Vietnam is inviting tourists to the front lines in its tense dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, organizing the country’s first tour of the contested Spratly islands this month.
The six-day tour, which will include visits to two above-water islands and two submerged islands and a national flag-raising ceremony, is planned weeks after a U.S. surveillance plane was warned by the Chinese navy to stop patrolling near reefs China claims in the Spratlys area. China, which claims about 80 percent of the sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map, has clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over the territory.
The Vietnamese trip to the Spratlys risks inflaming frictions as the U.S. seeks to challenge China’s increasing regional assertiveness while asking all territorial claimants to stop land reclamation activities of building artificial islands.
“The use of tourism to bolster the legitimacy of claims is not new,” Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said by phone. “But in the context of the current increasing tensions between the U.S. and China over the Spratly islands, it is not helpful to have a new round of tit-for-tat introduced into the dynamics.”
Vietnam has 48 outposts in the Spratlys, while the Philippines and China each have eight, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said during a May 13 U.S. Senate hearing. Malaysia has five and Taiwan, one, he said.
Saigon Tourist Corp., a government-owned company, promises the 757 nautical-mile “journey to Spratlys” will “arouse national pride and citizen consciousness of the sacred sovereignty of the country,” according to a posting on the Ho Chi Minh City government’s website.
“Guests will attend the national flag-raising ceremony, commemorate the heroic martyrs, visit a pagoda, get on the lighthouse for a panoramic view of the island, explore the daily life of citizens and troops on the island,” the posting says.
Saigon Tourist’s executives were not immediately available for comment, a company spokeswoman said by phone.
Chinese travel agencies have been running cruises to Woody Island in the South China Sea since late 2012 when the Chinese government established a new city called Sansha to administer disputed islands in the Spratlys and Paracels chains.
China placed an oil rig last May near the Paracel islands that are also claimed by Vietnam, triggering a diplomatic row and violent anti-China protests in its Southeast Asian neighbor. Fishing boats from Vietnam have repeatedly clashed with Chinese marine police, which accuse the Vietnamese of being in China’s territory without permission. Vietnam contests a fishing ban issued by China in parts of the South China Sea between May 16 and Aug. 1.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on May 30 called for an “immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by any claimant” and said the U.S. would continue its patrols.
The tourist trip to the Spratlys, while a low level of territorial provocation, nonetheless puts “civilians in the line of fire” by increasing the chances of some sort of sea clash between Vietnam and China, Graham said.
“I’m not sure the U.S. would necessarily be supportive given that it is currently urging restraint by all claimants on reclamations and other activities,” he said.