Chinese local official denies plan to designate islands as city – HK paper

(BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific) Text of report by Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post website on 19 December

[Report by Kristine Kwok: “Plan To Designate Islands a City Denied”]

The diplomatic row with Vietnam over the designation of disputed islands at China’s southern tip as a city took another turn yesterday when a Hainan official denied such a plan was on the agenda.

A Wenchang government representative said there was no plan to set up Sansha, a 2.6 million sq km county-level city to govern China’s claims in the Spratly and Paracel islands, a source of territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

It had been reported that Wenchang would administer Sansha, an abbreviation for Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha, the terms Beijing uses to refer to territory it claims in the two island groups.

“There is no such thing. In Hainan, we only have Sanya, but not Sansha,” the official said.

Another official from the Hainan provincial government said the authorities had not received any documentation from the central government on redesignating the area as a city.

News that Beijing ratified a plan last month to create Sansha was first reported by Vietnamese media and followed up overseas. In sharp contrast to the attention outside China, no mainstream mainland media have covered the issue, which would otherwise be a source of pride.

But the reports have been discussed in many internet chat rooms and widely circulated through personal blogs. In one of the few available reports by mainland media, www.voc.com.cn , a website affiliated with the official Hunan Daily , said the new city would administer a quarter of China’s total area.

It also said the Wenchang government had pledged in a Communist Party Committee meeting it would promote the State Council’s plan to change the status of the islands.

But the Foreign Ministry gave a rather vague response yesterday when asked to confirm such a plan, with spokesman Qin Gang saying it was normal for China to conduct activities in its own territory.

Mr Qin said Beijing was concerned by anti-China protests in Vietnam over the past two weekends in response to the alleged Sansha plans.

“We require the Vietnamese government to take practical and effective measures to prevent the situation from getting worse,” he said.

Rallies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday attracted several hundred demonstrators and followed similar protests in the cities a week earlier. Analysts said the protests were the most damaging in the relationship between China and Vietnam, where demonstrations are a rarity.

A territorial dispute between the neighbours in 1979 sparked a brief border war.

Zhang Xizhen, of Peking University’s School of International Relations, said the border war remained a scar between the two countries despite warming trade and political ties.

But Anthony Wong Dong, chairman of the International Military Association in Macau , said a more pressing issue than the scars of history was the right to explore energy in the disputed areas. The Spratlys and Paracels are claimed, in part or in full, by the mainland, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, and are believed to have oil and gas reserves.

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