On a cruise more about politics than pleasure, Zhang Jing watched the gray shells of the Paracel Islands emerge from the purple, pre-dawn South China Sea.
Cheers erupted on board at the sight of the distant land, and Zhang and the other passengers scurried to take pictures of each other at the railing holding China’s bright red flag. A few miles away, a Chinese navy frigate cruised by silently, part of the country’s continuing watch over the tiny islands it has long claimed as part of its territory.
“This is the southern frontier of China,” Zhang, a policeman, said when he had reached one of the islands. “As a Chinese, I feel proud to come here and declare sovereignty.”
With the Tangshan resident and 167 other Chinese tourists on board, the ship had traveled more than 200 miles south of Hainan Island off China’s southern coast to what they said was an indisputable outpost of their country.
Each had waited months for permission to join the five-day tour, and spent from $1,200 to about $2,000 to visit these barren patches of sand, making do with the bland cabbage and noodles on board and blackouts of cellphone service.
The passengers came to celebrate China’s growing power in the region, and to help press its claim to the 130 coral islands and reefs of the Paracels, known to the Chinese as the Xishas.
China is locked in disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and other neighbors over much of the strategically crucial South China Sea, which holds important shipping lanes, rich fishing waters and possibly billions of barrels of oil. Patriotic tourists have become the region’s latest territorial chess pieces.
China has stationed hundreds of troops on the Paracels and even built a massive government headquarters in the northern islands, though Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the territory.
The tour company that Zhang used visits the southern Paracels. Since starting the tours in May 2013, it has ferried some 3,000 people to the islands, which are no bigger than a square mile. Videographers from The Associated Press were the first foreign journalists to join one of the tours.
The cruises are useful to China because under international law, it must prove a civilian and not just a military use for the islands to claim sovereignty, said Kang Lin, a researcher at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
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Chinese Patriotism Fuels Cruises to Disputed Isles