BEIJING, April 5 (Reuters) - China plans to let tourists visit the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, according to official comments reported on Thursday that could add another irritant to Beijing's maritime tensions with Vietnam and other neighbours.
China and Vietnam maintain rival claims across swathes of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands. Called the Xisha islands in Chinese, they are a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs that are controlled by Beijing.
That dispute and a mosaic of other conflicting claims have set China against Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
The proposed opening of the Paracel Islands to tourism could add to the long-standing friction, which has drawn the United States into pressing Beijing over the issue.
"The broad plan is being worked on, and a specific one is also being worked on, and we hope that within the year we'll be able to open maritime tourism to the Paracel Islands," said Deng Xiaogang, a deputy head of tourism for Hainan, the southern Chinese island-province that is near the disputed islands.
Deng's comments were first reported by Chinese state radio on Wednesday and later widely reported by Chinese media, including the China News Service.
Wang Zhifa, a deputy head of China's national tourism authority, said in March that "developing tourism in the Paracel islands will help us to protect our frontiers and demonstrate the existence of our sovereignty", said the news report.
Last month, China and Vietnam quarreled after Beijing said it had detained 21 Vietnamese for illegal fishing around the disputed islands but Vietnam said the fishermen had been detained in its waters and demanded their immediate release.
Tension rose in the region in the past two years over concern that China is becoming more assertive in its claim to the seas, believed to be rich in oil and gas and straddling shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East.
The stakes have risen over the past year as the United States has refocused military attention on Asia and strengthened its ties with the Philippines and Australia.
The Philippines claimed progress on Wednesday in persuading Southeast Asian leaders to present a united front to China over disputes in the South China Sea after a leaders' summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China has insisted on handling the disputes on a one-on-one basis rather than multilaterally, a strategy some critics have described as "divide and conquer". China says its sovereignty is indisputable and historically based. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Paul Tait)