“The Philippines has brought a legal case to the international court against us. But unquestionably Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) is ours!” said Yang Bo, the master of ceremonies at the night show on the small cruise liner Star of Northern Bay.
“Yes!” replied the audience sitting on the ship’s Sunshine Deck under a starlight sky on a hot, humid and windless night in the South China Sea’s Paracel (Xisha) Islands.
As a Chinese navy entertainment troupe, headed by popular folk singer Song Zuying, entertained troops on a tour around the islands on a large landing dock, the audience on the Star of Northern Bay enjoyed a less high-profile singing and dancing performance
I have been dreaming of visiting Xisha since I read a chapter in a textbook about ‘Beautiful and Prosperous Xisha’ in primary school
In the intervals, Yang gave brief but enthusiastic introductions to China’s policy on the ongoing disputes over the South China Sea and the current situation. He condemned the Philippines and Vietnam for “illegally occupying Chinese islands” in the 2 million square kilometre area claimed by China and said that even though James Shoal, 80km off the Malaysian coast, was always under the sea, it remained China’s southernmost territory.
The night came to a climax when Yang put the 1974 Battle of Xisha, a two-episode state television documentary, on the big screen. It tells the story of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s first proper sea battle, describing how the PLA’s ships, “brave underdogs”, heroically collided with and damaged the South Vietnamese fleet to claim a close victory and take control of the Paracels.
It was a fitting location for the screening. Ahead of the small cruise liner lay Duncan Island, where a failed Vietnamese landing attempt started the fighting on that January morning 42 years ago. On the starboard side, lights flickered on Pattle Island, where a successful Chinese occupation a day later brought the incident to an end.
As the show went on, a thin new moon appeared in the sky above the Crescent Group, in the western part of the Paracels. The golden curve was silently reflected on the surface of the sea, in between naval vessels lying at anchor.
Yagong Island was no place for a dog, now it’s home to 400 trees
There are now PLA troops stationed on both Duncan and Pattle, along with other major islands in the Paracels. In recent months, more advanced missiles, fighter jets and ships have been deployed as military tension with the US escalates rapidly.
The largest island in the Paracels, Woody, is not just China’s biggest military base in the South China Sea, but also the location of the Sansha city government, created in 2012.
China claims most of the South China Sea with a U-shaped, nine-dash line. The Paracel Islands in the northwest, the Spratly Islands in the south, and Scarborough Shoal in the east were put under the administration of Sansha, China’s newest and least populated city, with about 1,000 registered residents so far.
As Yang mentioned, the Philippines filed a case against China in their disputes over Scarborough and the Spratlys, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague expected to hand down a ruling in June.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) recognises an “island” and its relevant economic rights only when it is “naturally above water”, and “capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life”.
That may result in unfavourable rulings to China, as Scarborough and the Chinese-controlled reefs in the Spratlys are not naturally habitable.
But the Paracels, mostly natural islands and firmly controlled by Chinese forces for decades, just need a bigger civilian presence for Beijing to strengthen their status.
On one of the non-military islands, Yagong, there are plans for a village administration building with functions suitable for both peacetime and war, and permanent houses for the residents to replace their small sheds of wood, bamboo and tin.
Construction has already started on Silver Islet, a hectare of land on Observation Bank, with gravel and concrete piled up on the beach, bulldozers and mixers buzzing and builders climbing high to weld steel bars – all shipped from the mainland.
A new public toilet has just been built on the islet, which village chief Li Lingjun and two staff look after in turn. It cost more than 200,000 yuan (HK$237,500), 10 times what it would cost to build in an average Chinese village. And the newer buildings planned will probably be 100 times bigger.
Other infrastructure, such as desalination devices, solar panels, diesel generators, a telecoms base station and a vegetable greenhouse are being installed for the islet’s 22 residents, who receive subsidies to stay.
Tourism, meanwhile, is another form of “sustaining inhabitation” and “economic life”.
January to April is the South China Sea’s best season, when its light winds, blue skies, green seas and white sands are second to none as a tropical holiday paradise.
However, none of the Paracel islands are capable of offering tourist accommodation at present.
“The ecological environment of the islands is too fragile. Consider the Maldives. And their islands are even much larger,” said the policeman stationed on the Star of Northern Bay.
The ship, the only tourist vessel operating cruises to the region, anchors off shore in the Crescent Group after a 13-hour voyage from Sanya, Hainan. Each time, up to 200 tourists have two days to explore three of the non-military islands and the nearby waters on motor boats before returning to Sanya, but they have to shuttle back to the ship for meals, showers and sleep. The cruise liner also features a gym, convenience store and a nightclub, and postal services are available.
The tourists, all mainland Chinese who had to pass background checks, said they were mobilised by curiosity and patriotism. They paid from 2,980 to 19,800 yuan for the only chance to set foot on China’s mysterious “southern territory”
Extra activities, such as snorkelling, diving and fishing are expensive. A 600 yuan snorkel excursion passes through stunning corals and marine life but also reveals natural and man-made damage. A 2,800 yuan expedition allows tourists to snorkel above a 5,000 metre deep blue cave, or observe the area from a glass-bottomed boat. The most expensive option lets anglers troll the surf around the Crescent Group for 3,800 yuan. They’re allowed to keep and take home whatever they catch.
But not a single piece of coral or shell is allowed to be taken away from the islands, in the interests of their preservation. There’s even a bag check when tourists return to the ship.
“If everyone took a piece, our precious islands would be disappearing soon,” said the bag inspector.
The 10,000 tonne Star of Northern Bay replaced the similar sized but much older Princess Coconut Fragrance on the route in March, bringing not only tourists eager to taste seafood delicacies and buy dried fish from the islanders, but also transporting supplies like fresh vegetables and cigarettes to the villagers and taking away household waste.
The cruise trip has been operated by Hainan Strait Shipping, a joint venture of state-owned companies since April 2013. By May this year, more than 100 cruises had taken more than 10,000 tourists to the Paracels.
“I have been dreaming of visiting Xisha since I read a chapter in a textbook about ‘Beautiful and Prosperous Xisha’ in primary school,” said one tourist, a man in his 30s.
Many tourists said they loved the stunning natural beauty of the Paracels, however, some expressed dissatisfaction at the end of the cruise with what they had been offered. They complained the islands were too small and the time on them too short. There said there was not much to do and what was on offer was surprisingly expensive.
“I gave up a potential cruise trip to Okinawa for Xisha. But now I think that for the same amount of money I would have much more to enjoy in Japan,” a woman from Hainan said.
There has been talk of larger ships, and more islands, even Woody, being opened up to tourists, with Robert Island, the only one in the Crescent Group to have natural freshwater, potentially being transformed into a botanic garden and holiday resort. Some experts are said to have been working on preliminary studies.
One attraction on the Star of Northern Bay cruise that was not in short supply was patriotism.
The Chinese flag was a popular prop in photos taken on the cruise, being passed from hand to hand on the deck when the sun rose and set, as well as on beaches and motor boats.
On the morning before the documentary screening, the tourists landed on Quanfu Island, where they were greeted by a banner they could leave messages on.
“The South China Sea belongs to China,” one of the notes read.
A group of elderly tourists in swimsuits sang and danced to Ode to the Motherland and the PLA Anthem on the beach, with some striking signature poses from the Cultural Revolution.
Then came a flag-raising ceremony. People were asked to take off their straw hats, baseball caps and sunglasses, raise their right fists, and recite the oath.
“I love my country!”
“I love Xisha!”
The tour guide picked a retired serviceman as help raise the flag. Everything was ready. “Start,” he said.
There was something wrong with the loudspeaker, but unaccompanied by music, the crowd sang the prelude, verse and chorus of the national anthem, March of the Volunteers, themselves.
The music returned and the ceremony continued. The flag fluttered at the top of the pole, over the completely inhabited, two hectare island.
“Whose is the South China Sea?” asked the guide.
“China’s!” answered the crowd.