South China Sea: The battle against shipwreck looters

A Chinese fishery administration ship preparing to patrol the Xisha Islands (Paracels) in March 2013

So many looters are scouring South China Sea shipwrecks that half the sites near a group of disputed islands are damaged.

That's according to China's official news agency Xinhua, which says there are more than 100 relic sites, including ancient wrecks, off the islands known as Xisha in China and the Paracels elsewhere. It quotes officials as saying treasure hunters are no longer content with stealing small artefacts like porcelain but want bigger pieces such as rock anchors and cannons.

The provincial authorities commission maritime patrols and have even bought their own boat but it seems the sea's sheer size mean that underwater treasures remain at the looters' mercy. "Those who are better equipped and more patient win," one official told Xinhua, "At this point, we are losing." The islands are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, but have been under Beijing's control since a short war with South Vietnam in 1974. China created a new city on the largest island to administer the group last year and has said it will open them to tourism, in a move seen as another attempt to demonstrate ownership of the potentially oil-rich area around the islands.

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