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China going beyond military tactics to assert control over South China Sea

Fishing boats festooned with Chinese flags are seen in the port of Boao in Qionhai, Hainan province, China, on July 7, 2017. (Mainichi)

HAINAN PROVINCE, China -- It has been exactly one year since the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, dismissed the basis for China's claims to a huge swathe of the South China Sea. Faced with this setback to its plans to extend Chinese sovereignty nearly to the shores of the Philippines, Beijing chose to reject the ruling and launch bilateral negotiations with the Philippine government -- which had brought the suit at the Hague in the first place -- and practically moot the court's decision by altering the facts on the ground.

Through this and other moves that appear to ignore the binding force of international law, China is slowly and stealthily taking control over islands across the South China Sea as a "great power."

In Boao, a port in the Chinese island province of Hainan facing the South China Sea, a group of fishermen could be seen playing mahjong in an eatery near the wharf. When asked if the arbitration court's decision had affected their work, one of the men replied, "Are there any Japanese fisherman who don't go out on the sea because they're worried about a piece of scrap paper? There's no one like that here, I can tell you."

The other mahjong players laugh at this. One of them adds, "There are a lot of fish around Nansha Qundao (the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea) we can sell at high prices. Those waters are a treasure we've inherited from our ancestors."

According to the men, after the court decision, the fishermen's association released the following directive: "Continue working as before." The local government, too, apparently kept on paying fuel subsidies of more than 150,000 yuan (about 2.5 million yen, or $22,000) to fishermen who operate around the Spratlys, some 1,000 kilometers away.

China's attempt to make its control of the South China Sea a fait accompli does not stop at the fishing industry. Sanya, a city on Hainan Island's southern coast and a major domestic tourist spot, is the home base for cruises to the Paracels, another island group in the South China Sea effectively ruled by China.

One travel agent advertises Paracel Islands cruises starting at 4,780 yuan (about 80,000 yen, or $705) for a three-night, four-day excursion. Though not cheap, these trips are apparently popular. One major reason for this is the "patriotic activism" campaign on the islands, including raising the Chinese flag. One recent traveler to the Paracels commented on social media, "I felt pride as a Chinese person."

The Hainan provincial administration is moving forward with transforming the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands into resort areas. According to a Chinese newspaper, the mayor of Sansha -- the municipality with jurisdiction over the Spratlys and the Paracels -- said of the vision for the islands' future: "We will build wedding halls and diving facilities, and aim to create resorts comparable to those on the Maldives in the Indian Ocean."

This isn't fait accompli control by military means, but it is proceeding apace nonetheless.

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