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Russia to raise military presence on disputed Kuril islands
by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) May 27, 2016

China pushes 'patriotic' tours in South China Sea: report
Beijing (AFP) May 27, 2016 - China will turn contested islands in the South China Sea into pleasure-trip destinations for "patriotic" tourists, state-media said Friday, in a move likely to further stoke regional tensions.

China claims almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbours and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

But the Asian giant hopes to turn the area around Woody Island in the contested Paracels chain into a "major tourist attraction comparable to the Maldives", the state-run China Daily said.

Holidaymakers will be able to windsurf, fish, dive, take sea plane trips and attend island weddings "for romantics", it explained, with no mention of rival claims to the island by Vietnam and Taiwan.

"It is not an easy trip, but many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it," Xiao Jie, the mayor of Sansha city, on Woody Island, told the paper, adding that it was "like a blank canvas".

Tourists have been allowed to travel to non-militarized areas of the South China Sea since 2013, it said, with Xiao estimating that 30,000 have already visited.

Cruise ships brought 16,000 tourists on six trips to the Paracel islands -- known as Xisha in Chinese -- last year, the paper added.

Beijing unilaterally awarded Sansha two million square kilometres of sea in 2012, declaring it to be China's largest city.

It will use ships to remove rubbish as the number of visitors rises, the China Daily said.

Tourist ships depart from Sanya city in the southern province of Hainan, whose cruise terminal is undergoing a nearly $3 billion dollar renovation to become one of the busiest in Asia, the report said.

Cai Chaohui, vice-president of Sanya's port affairs centre, told the paper: "I'm confident about the prospects... many tourists want to have a look at the mysterious islands".

Russia said Friday it was taking unprecedented measures to upgrade its military presence on the far-eastern Kuril islands claimed by Japan, including plans to set up a new base on an uninhabited island.

Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the eastern military district, announced the launch of "unprecedented measures to develop military infrastructure in the area", the defence ministry said in a statement.

He said Russia was taking the steps to "exclude the emergence of even the smallest risks."

Russia has military bases on the Kuril Pacific archipelago, while Japan claims four of the islands in a dispute that has simmered since World War II, preventing the countries ever signing a peace treaty.

Soviet troops seized the four at the end of World War II just after Japan surrendered.

Surovikin listed the measures being taken as "a planned rearmament of the formations and units and boosting the level of social protection for all categories of serving soldiers and their family members."

Russia earlier this month sent six ships from its Pacific Ocean naval fleet on an expedition to an uninhabited island in the archipelago called Matua.

Surovikin said Friday "the main aim of the expedition is to study the possibility of future basing of Pacific Fleet forces there".

"The eastern outpost of Russia, particularly Sakhalin Island and the Kuril islands provide unconditional guarantees of security and the territorial integrity of our country," he said.

Matua is not one of the four islands in the chain claimed by Japan and is closer to Russia.

Russian television showed army tents set up on the island as well as a cargo ship landing military vehicles.

Troops have set up a field camp and organised water and electricity supplies and communications, Surovikin said.

The uninhabited island is swathed in fog and has snow at sea level even in late May. It is dominated by a snow-topped active volcano.

Rossiya 24 television showed sappers exploding mines from World War II. It said that the island had housed a secret Japanese base and still has three airstrips and numerous fortifications.

The bullish statements come as Japan hosts a summit of the Group of Seven, which has snubbed Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in March that Russia would deploy a range of coastal missile systems on the Kurils as part of increased military spending in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russian President Vladimir Putin this month at his holiday residence in Sochi with peace talks high on the agenda.

The Japanese foreign ministry afterwards said Abe had come closer to a breakthrough on the dispute and had proposed a new approach, while Russia said simply that negotiations between diplomats would continue.

Putin is expected to visit Japan some time this year, a Kremlin advisor told journalists this month.

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