Poverty in the Paracel Islands
Standing equidistant from China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, the Paracel Islands seem at first glance like nothing more than a collection of barren, low laying islands. Yet, controversy surrounds the nearly uninhabitable archipelago. Occupied by China since 1974 but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, the Paracel Islands are a valuable geostrategic base over which China continues to strengthen its claim. As China’s political agenda transforms the islands through land reclamation, it is also transforming poverty in the Paracel Islands.

Islands Surrounded by Geopolitics

The history and location of the Paracel Islands, or Xisha Islands in Chinese, explain much of the area’s continuous transformation. A dispute with South Vietnam in the 1970s saw China gain control over the 30-island chain, but this did little to ease the tension surrounding rightful ownership and the islands stand as a point of controversy to this day.

In July 2020, China flexed its power by changing the wording referring to the stretch of land between Hainan Province and the Paracel Islands from “offshore” to “coastal.” This move is indicative of China’s drive to control more of the South China Sea.

Official ownership of the Paracel Islands would give China greater access to international waters, oil reserves and fishing groundsresources that make the islands a hotbed of military interest. Tensions grow higher as China strengthens its claim through domestic law by building civilian facilities. This move has not only highlighted China’s complete control over the population living there but also has had a considerable impact on poverty in the Paracel Islands.

“Claiming Ownership” and its Effects on Poverty

Much remains unknown about life on the archipelago, including its current state of poverty. That being said, it is apparent that China’s development has given residents greater access to resources now in comparison to a decade ago. The most populated island in the chain, Woody Island, is home to about 1,400 people who work primarily as military personnel, construction workers and fishermen.

Woody Island has built a new school for its children in addition to a recreation center, hospital, post office, supermarket and newly paved roads. Civilians are no longer reliant on imported barrels of fresh drinking water because of the installation of a desalination plant. Meanwhile, permanent living facilities have replaced the wooden huts that residents formerly lived in.

China also made a breakthrough in growing crops through a military-driven sand-to-soil cultivation project in June 2020, which reaped a harvest of 750 kilograms of vegetables. The military spreads the technology to civilians, who can then grow food themselves and even add greenery to the islandboth feats that were once deemed impossible.

The introduction of “patriotic tourism” also created a local economy that has had a positive influence on poverty in the Paracel Islands. Currently only open to Chinese nationals, advertisements showcase the islands as a means to fulfill patriotic duty rather than to provide a tropical getaway. Tourists are able to support the locals by purchasing seafood and trinkets from vendors while they tour around the islands, which also helps assert China’s presence within the archipelago.

A Cautious Look to the Future

China’s development on the islands and support of the tourism industry is a clear attempt to show the country’s administrative control over the population within the Paracel Islands. Nonetheless, there is no denying that poverty in the Paracel Islands, particularly on Woody Island, has undergone significant reduction during China’s past decade of geostrategic moves.

Civilian life has flourished and residents no longer rely on imports for basic necessities. On Woody Island, children have access to education, people can buy food from supermarkets and friends are able to meet at cafes. These seemingly simple aspects of a town are part of the dramatic transformation from the barren place with wooden huts that fishermen discovered in 1979.

While China’s attention has certainly seemed to improve life for citizens, several factors exist that could reverse this progress such as the tourism industry’s impact on fishermen’s livelihoods. Points like this call for a positive, yet watchful eye when it comes to assessing and transforming poverty in the Paracel Islands.

Anastasia Clausen
Photo: Flickr

Living Conditions in the Paracel Islands
The Paracel Islands is a group of more than 30 islands between the coastlines of Vietnam and China, also called Xisha Islands, the Hoang Sa Archipelago and West Sand Islands. The country is in the South China Sea and some have considered it a flashpoint for regional tensions in East and Southeast Asia. Along with the Spratly and Patras Islands, the maritime territory is “…at risk of becoming Asia’s Palestine…” said the outgoing Secretary-General of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. With this in mind, here are 10 facts about the living conditions in the Paracel Islands.

10 Facts About Living Conditions in the Paracel Islands

  1. Fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves surround the Paracel Islands. Although no one has done a reliable estimate on the area, many believe there is a significant hydrocarbon (the chief component in petroleum and natural gas) prize in the region. The mere suspicion of the potential value the islands may have had made China anxious about its occupation.
  2. According to international law, China has sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands by discovery and occupation of said islands. While China faced Japanese aggression in 1930, however, France, as the colonial power in Vietnam, occupied some of the islands upon the argument that those islands were Vietnamese historical territories.
  3. The Japanese invaded the Vietnamese islands as an act of aggression towards China. It was not until the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1952 Sino-Japanese Treaty when Japan renounced all rights to the Paracel Islands, as well as the Spratly Islands, Penghu and Taiwan to China. Because of this, the Paracel Islands are a huge source of international conflict. The People’s Republic of China has tried to keep the occupation of the islands, despite protests from the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Vietnam. In 2012, the People’s Republic of China declared a city named Sansha, located on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands, that administers several island groups. The People’s Republic of China is doing everything in its power to support its territorial claims.
  4. Although no one has calculated an exact number, the People’s Republic of China invests millions in the development of the Paracel Islands. More recently, Beijing revealed a $23.5 million contract for a coastguard ship to patrol the Paracel Islands. It has also made advancements in the living conditions on Woody Island.
  5. Woody Island is the most populated of the Paracel Islands with over 1,000 habitats and scattered Chinese garrisons on the surrounding islands. Most people living on the islands are soldiers, construction workers and fishermen. With the recent construction, China has built a school for the 40 children living on the island. It also has a hospital, a postal office, a supermarket and more.
  6. There are many concerns about the militarization of the South China Sea as reports of the presence of missiles on the islands, especially Woody Island, surge. China built a military installation on Woody Island with an airfield and artificial harbor. President Xi Jinping held a private two-day drill in the Paracel Islands as a show of strength in the South China Sea.
  7. There is a limited supply of fresh water on the islands. On most of the islands that China occupies, drinking water comes in barrels with other supplies from small boats, making it as scarce as fuel. Desalination plants have activated in the South China Sea but are not available to all. Many have had to improve their ability to sustain long periods of time without supplies, including drinking water.
  8. There are plans underway to open the Paracel Islands to tourism by granting visa-free travel. The travelers will be able to stay up to 30 days on the islands. For years, tourism was scarce in the islands due to international conflicts but construction has already begun for a tourist area. There is, however, a threat for allowing tourists onto the islands.
  9. One of the biggest sources of income for the habitats in the Paracel Islands are the surrounding fishing grounds. It represents a key part of the living conditions in the Paracel Islands. If tourism opens up in the area, fishing activities will be greatly reduced. Another problem has risen against the fishing grounds: the degradation of coastal habitats. The degradation of coastal habitats has been mostly due to the military bases in construction. Luckily, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme have partnered for the Implementation of the Regional Strategic Action Programme for the South China Sea. Along with rehabilitating the coastal habitats, one of its priority issues is the management failures with respect to the linkage between fish stock and critical habitats. The coastal reefs are a considerable part of the Paracel Islands because they also act as a defense.
  10. A major concern of the Paracel Islands is typhoon season. The islands experience a series of typhoons during the summer months. This natural disaster leads to instability in the islands and the reefs are a critical part in protecting the islands from major harm.

People have given little attention to the poverty the habitants of the Paracel Islands have been facing these past years. These 10 facts about the living conditions in the Paracel Islands should illuminate the subject so the archipelago can improve over time.

– Andrea Viera
Photo: Wikipedia Commons