China must heed its neighbours' concerns
China's leaders vow that the nation will grow through peaceful development. They speak of mutual trust as being the foundation for stable bilateral ties, respect for concerns and core interests, and the necessity of negotiation to solve disputes. Transparency and co-operation will be priorities, they promise. But plans to turn the contested Paracel archipelago into a tourist destination - while economically perhaps a good idea - raise questions about Beijing's intentions among its neighbours.
Authorities revealed the plans last week as part of proposals to boost the economy of Hainan province. Hainan, which Beijing has designated to administer the disputed Paracel, Spratly and Zhongsha archipelagos in the South China Sea, is among the nation's poorest regions despite being a special economic zone. Developing it as a haven for foreign tourists makes good sense given its tropical location, sandy beaches and colourful coral reefs.
But China needs to be mindful of how this will be seen by other claimants to the islands.
The uninhabited Paracels have been contested for centuries by China and Vietnam and are also claimed by Taiwan. All assert sovereignty over the 16 islands based on historical factors. Deposits of oil and gas are believed to lie in the surrounding waters, which are rich fishing grounds. China seized the islands in 1974 after a sea battle with Vietnam, and the issue - like control of the Spratlys - remains a thorn in relations.
China has agreed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Vietnam is a member, to resolve sovereignty of the archipelagos in a peaceful manner through direct negotiations. In a deal signed in 2002, the countries involved pledged to exercise self-restraint in carrying out activities that could complicate disputes and affect peace and stability. Specifically mentioned was refraining from inhabiting islands, reefs and other features that were unoccupied. The proposals for the Paracels, while perhaps abiding by the letter of the agreement, run counter to its spirit.
Beijing has a military presence on the largest of the Paracels, Woody Island, where it has built a runway. Weather stations are maintained on other islets. That its navy and that of Vietnam patrol the waters makes the possibility of conflict ever-present. China's modernisation and the growth of its navy as it takes its place as a global power should come as no surprise to anyone; but neither, too, should the natural unease its rivals feel about the development. Some, Vietnam key among them, are also strengthening their militaries. The State Council did not give details of how it intends to develop Hainan's tourism potential. There are potential pitfalls, not only because of the sovereignty claims; parts of the main island of Hainan are off-limits because of sensitive military operations. The People's Liberation Army Navy's fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is based there, as will be a launch centre for satellites and space vehicles that is under construction.
China has promised to be mindful of the concerns of its neighbours and has often pledged that its military rise is for defence, not aggression. It has made agreements about how to handle territorial disputes. Claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea cannot be taken lightly. The possibility of conflict is high. Building resorts on the Paracels could lead to provocation and further raise fears about China's expansion. Pacts should be respected and rhetoric about peace and stability backed by more openness and transparency.