“China will continue to develop the Paracel Islands to demonstrate that it is in effective occupation of the islands and is exercising administrative control,” said Carl Thayer, a maritime expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China is scheduled to let tourists visit the Xisha Islands (the name China has given to the Paracels Archipelago) ahead of the forthcoming May Day holiday, Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern-most province of Hainan, was quoted as saying by the state news agency Xinhua in a Sunday report.

People will be allowed to visit the islands on cruise tours, Tan said at the 2013 annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia, a non-profit organization that hosts high-level forums for leaders from government, business and academia in Asia and other continents to share their vision on the most pressing issues in the region and the world at large.

Details of the tours will be released on a later date, Tan said, adding that tourists will eat and sleep on the cruise ships and visit the islands for sightseeing.

A cruise ship with a gross registered tonnage of 47,000 tons that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready for sailing, Xinhua said, citing a source from the ship’s owner, Haihang Group.

The official Vietnam News Agency said Monday the announcement violates Vietnam’s sovereignty and is against the spirit of the talks in which China committed to fully follow the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.

China illegally claims sovereignty over 80 percent of the East Sea.

The waters are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.

China’s plan to send cruise ship to the Paracels was the latest in a series of unilaterally provocative actions in the area.

Last month, a Chinese ship shot flares at four Vietnamese fishing boats from Quang Ngai Province that were fishing in their traditional fishing grounds in the Paracels, a move that Vietnam criticized as “inhumane and dangerous”.

Thayer said China is likely to take other provocative actions in the near future.

“The next move by China will be to impose its annual unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea above 12 degrees north latitude, or the waters around the Paracel Islands. Chinese civilian authorities may step up arrests of those they consider ‘illegal fishermen’,” he told Thanh Nien.

Given the status quo, international experts say they doubt if China will soon agree on a separate code of conduct (COC) aimed at easing tensions in the East Sea.

“China's position is that it is not ready to start talks on a COC because it accuses Vietnam and the Philippines of repeatedly violating the DOC," said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

"Of course Hanoi and Manila have accused Beijing of doing the same, and the tourism cruises to the Paracels could be interpreted as a violation of the self-restraint clause in the DOC,” he said.

“China's position on the COC is unlikely to change in the near future.”

Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the dispute, said China is trying to keep the disputes separate from the COC and its relations with the ASEAN.

“I would guess there will be more discord between Vietnam and China,” he said.

Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh on Monday visited Quang Ngai’s Ly Son Island and affirmed Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa (Spratlys) archipelagoes.

He instructed Ly Son District to encourage fishermen to stick to their traditional fishing grounds in the archipelagoes.

Minh said his ministry has requested the central government to offer more support to local fishermen.

By Tuan La - Thanh Nien News - April 8, 2013