Islands in the South China Sea May See More Visitors



The Philippines is making it easier for the public to visit a small island in the disputed South China Sea.

A boat ramp is being built on Thitu Island, which is controlled by the Philippines. The ramp is designed to help small boats be brought to shore. It is expected to be finished this year.

The move may signal a change in the way the Philippines is treating the territory in the sea that is the subject of an international dispute.

China also claims Thitu. It is developing three other small landforms in the area. Development of small islands into military bases has been a point of strong disagreement between China and many of its neighbors.

Australia, Japan, the United States and other countries that depend on the waterway for trade say putting bases in the sea threatens freedom of navigation there.

About 100 people live on Thitu. It is one of the few places in the South China Sea where the public can go more or less freely.

Currently, governments tightly control who can visit islands and landforms.

Some observers believe that permitting public visitors may increase claims to sovereignty by showing that the territories are actually being used by people. That is a requirement noted in international disputes over the territories.

China also has started permitting people to visit the area by cruise ship. But it carefully controls who goes there.

Yun Sun is an East Asia expert with the Stimson Center research group in Washington. She said the new policy shows that, “By governing or managing the tourism in that area, it will be a piece of evidence to support sovereignty.”

Many small islands, few visitors

There are about 500 small islands and landforms in the South China Sea, which covers 3.5 million square kilometers. Most of the islands do not have structures built on them.

National coast guards and navies watch the areas they claim. International shipping is permitted. But usually, the public is barred from entering these small islands.

That appears to be changing.

Layang Layang is a Malaysian naval base. It is also open to the public. People from any country can travel to the island and stay at its 85-room hotel. Many of the visitors come to go diving in the surrounding waters.

Taiwan organizes public trips to some small islands it controls. Reporters can visit Itu Aba on special trips. And marine research is permitted on the Pratas Islands.

China has said it is opening some of the Paracel islands to its cruise ships. And Vietnam operates trips for its own citizens to the Spratly Islands, which include Thitu.

Jonathan Spangler is director of the South China Sea Think Tank, a research group in Taipei. He said China might open its cruises in the Paracels to foreigners. He said if China did this — and if Malaysia and the Philippines extended their public access — it could change the current climate in the sensitive area. It could “make it seem like less of a sensitive thing” to visit, Spangler said.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia also claim large areas of the sea.