Magazine article Geographical

Paracel Islands

Magazine article Geographical

Paracel Islands

Article excerpt

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The remote Paracel Islands, an archipelago of around 130 islets, rocks, reefs and spits located about 400 kilometres off the east coast of Vietnam, are proving to be a troublesome issue for Chinese-Vietnamese relations, while also providing a reminder of China's willingness to assert its strategic presence in Southeast Asia. In January, Beijing announced that it intended to develop tourism in the islands, an act seen by the Vietnamese government as deliberately provocative.

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Under Chinese military control since 1974, the islands are uninhabited, save for a small contingent of Chinese troops. As with the neighbouring Spratly Islands to the south, these outcrops in the South China Sea are contentious due to their central location and the resources that the surrounding waters may contain. They lie approximately equidistant from the coastlines of China and Vietnam and are also proximate to the west coast of the Philippines.

The archipelago itself is divided into the Amphitrite group to the northeast and the Crescent group to the southwest and occupies an area of around 15,000 square kilometres. The surrounding waters are thought to contain both oil and gas deposits, as well as productive fishing grounds.

The islands were originally annexed by French Indochina in 1932. They were effectively inherited by South Vietnam following France's departure in 1953-54. In January 1974, China and Vietnam fought a battle for control of the islands, with the Chinese navy defeating Vietnamese forces. China has retained de facto sovereignty ever since, consolidating its hold on the islands in 1999 when it built a military installation on Mischief Reef. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has blocked Vietnam's attempts to raise the issue of the disputed ownership of the islands in the UN.

Unable to match China's military and/or financial power, Vietnam has, in recent years, been engaging in an 'internationalising' strategy. In November last year, it hosted an international workshop involving analysts and officials from across the region on the topic of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. …

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