A beaching ramp due for completion this year – and warily watched by China – will give curious reporters something new to see when the Philippine military next escorts them to Thitu Island. Media pay attention to the 37-hectare (90 acres) islet west of the main Philippine archipelago because it’s the front line in a sovereignty dispute over the wider, largely off-limits South China Sea.
China also claims Thitu, and it’s developing three other islets not far off.
Thitu, home to about 100 people plus an airstrip, is one South China Sea islet that allows some form of public access. Governments that control the sea’s islets seldom permit anyone but their own personnel to visit, but some believe wider access can their bolster sovereignty claims by showing actual use, a criterion cited in international legal disputes.
Among officials in China, which is starting to allow cruises, “they see tourism as a means of exercise of administrative control,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C. “By governing or managing the tourism in that area, it will be a piece of evidence to support sovereignty.”
Most of the sea’s roughly 500 islets lack infrastructure. Coast guards and navy personnel stop entry to others. But a Malaysian-held island allows diving. Taiwan organizes periodic public viewing on two of its islets, China is opening the Paracel chain to cruise ships and Vietnam runs tours for its own citizens to the Spratly chain, which includes Thitu.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam dispute sovereignty over all or parts of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea. The waterway running from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo is valued for fisheries, shipping lanes and undersea fossil fuel reserves.
Reporters can visit Taiwan-held Itu Aba on sporadically organized trips, the most recent of which took place in 2016. Marine ecosystem researchers join occasional trips, by invitation, to Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands. Taiwan’s science minister led a 64-person delegation including researchers, some non-Taiwanese, to the Pratas in August.
Passengers on the Chinese cruise ship are probably all Chinese nationals, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.
It’s hard for foreigners to book, said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“So far, China is still restricted because of the sensitivity of the area. Vietnam is comparable to China in terms of the level of access,” Koh said. “Unless you are a Chinese citizen I think it is very difficult to access those areas.”