The Philippines military wants to create a cruise service to give tourists an up close and personal view of disputed parts of the South China Sea.
Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the newly installed chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), outlined his vision for a cruise service on Thursday while visiting the Palawan-based Western Command, which is responsible for the South China Sea.
When asked about how he would direct Western Command to handle China’s buildup in the region, Gen. Catapang responded in part by saying, “I challenged them to make Palawan the next most prosperous province. Palawan has a lot of potentials [sic], especially if we can also develop the islands that we now possess as [a] tourism destination – fishing grounds, and later on, we can find more oil and gas in the area.”
This led him to mention his goal of creating a cruise service in the region. “Hopefully, we will be able to put up a cruise ship going around six islands,” he said. Among these six are the disputed Spratly Islands of Patag, Lawak and Pagasa, as well as the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).
The Philippines military occupies these islands but they are contested in whole or part by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. In fact, China is currently blockading the Second Thomas Shoal to try to prevent the Philippines from resupplying the small contingent of Marines stationed there on a vessel it deliberately ran aground in 1999. This has made the Second Thomas Shoal one of the major flashpoints of the South China Sea.
Consequentially, the Philippines military entering into a public-private partnership for a cruise service around these disputed islands is likely to be fiercely opposed by China. More importantly, China maintains patrol ships in the region that regularly harass Philippine fishermen. Thus, a cruise service in the regional flashpoint could potentially jeopardize the safety of the people on board.
Gen. Catapang dismissed these concerns, however. To the contrary, he claimed that the cruise service could be a win-win situation for China and the Philippines because Beijing already has cruise services in other areas of the South China Sea. “They have a tourism effort to go around the islands that they possess,” the chief of staff of the AFP said at the news conference.
This was likely in reference to the sightseeing cruise service China started in April of last year that travels around some of the Chinese-controlled parts of the Paracel Islands. Vietnam, which also claims the Paracel Islands, strongly opposed the move at the time. Gen. Catapang suggested that China could offer similar cruises if it successfully reclaims parts of the Spratly Islands as it is currently trying to do. Thus, the idea of a cruise would be a “win-win” for both countries.
China’s unlikely to see it as such. In fact, Want China Times reported that the Chinese media outlet, the Global Times, carried an article on Gen. Catapang’s proposal (there isn’t one on it’s English-language site). According to Want China Times, “A PLA Navy expert said to Global Times that the proposed cruises would violate Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea and may trigger conflict.”
This might scare off the private investors Catapang envisions enlisting for the new venture. On the plus side, however, a military conflict would certainly put Carnival’s “poop cruise“ debacle in perspective.