Chinese plans to tour disputed islands may increase tensions with Vietnam

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A Chinese provincial official said Tuesday he's determined to start tourism development in the disputed Paracel Islands this year, a move that could further raise tensions with rival claimant Vietnam.

Hainan Vice Governor Tan Li said he is preparing to take tourists to the archipelago, about 220 miles southwest of Hainan and about the same distance from Vietnam's coast.

Tan gave no details, although the provincial tourism authority has previously organized at least one tourist regatta to the islands.

China ejected forces of the former South Vietnam from the Paracels in 1974, but Vietnam insists the islands are part of its territory. They are one of several island groups in the South China Sea that are claimed by China and other governments. They lie amid crucial international shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds, and what are thought to be potentially abundant oil and gas reserves.

Opening the islands to tourism would shore up China's claims of sovereignty. Beijing announced plans for development in 2009 that were met with immediate protests by Vietnam.

China's assertiveness over its South China Sea territorial claims has prompted a strong backlash in recent years, and Beijing sought to repair the damage beginning last year by exchanging high-level visits with Vietnam and agreeing to establish a hotline between them.

That seemed to have quieted the situation, although tensions have since flared with the Philippines in another contested area of the South China Sea, resulting in a tense, two-week-old high seas standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, which both countries claim.

Despite Beijing's caution, relatively poor Hainan has pushed persistently to open the Paracels to tourism since 1994 and has lobbied central government departments from the tourism promotion board to the People's Liberation Army Navy, according to Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a Beijing-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.

"The pattern is, Hainan pushes, eventually the center agrees, Vietnam protests, the center tells Hainan to stop, Hainan pretends it's stopping, but it keeps on going," she said.