In the wake of the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision that Beijing has no legal basis for claiming historical rights to the South China Sea, unease has settled over the region. China does not recognize the ruling, while the United States plans to continue provocative military patrols through the waterway.
Amid this tension, a Chinese state-run newspaper announced that Beijing plans to send eight cruise ships full of purported tourists through the waterway over the next five years.
The China Daily reports that the venture will carried out by China Communications Construction Co Ltd, China National Travel Service (HK) Group Corp, and Sanya International Cruise Development Co Ltd.
Sanya International already operates one cruise ship in the region, dubbed "Dream of the South China Sea."
In addition to buying between five and eight ships, the plan calls for the construction of new docks in the resort city of Sanya.
The source of the tensions is Beijing’s construction of artificial islands on top of sensitive reef habitats in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. While the United States and its Western allies have accused China of attempting to establish an air defense zone, Beijing has maintained that while it has every right to build within its own territory, the islands will be used largely for civilian purposes.
The new cruise lines prove just that. The ships will travel to the Crescent group of islands in the Paracels, where a number of resorts and shops will be built to accommodate a growing tourism industry.
Liu Junli, chairman of Sanya International, said the ships may also "cruise around the South China Sea at the appropriate time," according to China Daily.
That time could be far off, however. The Pentagon has conducted provocative patrols within the 12-mile territorial limit of China’s land reclamation projects, as part of “freedom of navigation” operations. Earlier this week, Beijing warned against the continuation of these maneuvers.
"This kind of military freedom of navigation is damaging to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and it could even play out in a disastrous way," Sun Jianguo, admiral and deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, said on Monday.
The Pentagon has already indicated, however, that it will not cease South China Sea patrols any time soon.
"The US Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all," US Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson said on Wednesday.
"This will not change."