China is planning to build five lighthouses in the disputed Paracel Islands in a move analysts said shows Beijing's firm stance over its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The Navigation Guarantee Centre of South China Sea said it had decided on the locations of the lighthouses in the area, which the Chinese authorities call the Xisha Islands, the China News Service reported yesterday.
The deployment of a Chinese oil rig in the region in May sparked riots in Vietnam, which also claims the islands.
The lighthouses are planned for North Reef, Antelope Reef, Drummond Island, South Sand and Pyramid Rock, small islets and reefs with part of their land surface below the waves at high tide.
Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has strongly criticised the plans, saying it has indisputable sovereignty over the islands and that the move is illegal.
Officials spent a week surveying the area before selecting the sites that offered a safe place to berth ships, the China News Service reported. The lighthouses will improve navigation in the area, according to Chinese officials.
Many islets and reefs in the region lack detailed maps for civilian ships, according to the report.
"A lighthouse is a symbol of the country's sovereignty in the islands," said Du Jifeng, a research fellow at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"But building a lighthouse in the name of aiding navigation is a move unlikely to trigger a strong backlash in Vietnam since in theory civilian ships from other countries can also benefit from its services."
The plan to build the lighthouses showed Beijing was taking a tough line over the country's territorial disputes in the South China Sea, said Shen Shishun, an expert at the China Institute of International Studies.
"The public has long been calling on the mainland government to be more assertive in the territorial row," Shen said.
"There have been complaints China turned a blind eye to Vietnam's exploration of resources in the disputed waters."
Xinhua reported last month that China was also dredging navigation channels off one island in the Paracels.