In the latest development in the South China Sea (SCS) region, China, in a move of unilateral aggression, established the new city of Sansha on Yongxing Island/Woody Island a few miles away from Hainan Province. Besides being a pivot point of the SCS, Woody Island is also the command centre of the SCS. China gained control of Woody Island in 1974 after a battle with Vietnam. This island is disputed between China, Taiwan and Vietnam. This incident has a raised few questions – Was there evidence of such Chinese moves in the region earlier? What would be the implications of this move?
The literal meaning of the word Sansha is ‘three sandbanks’ in Mandarin. Xisha (Paracel), Nansha (Spratlys) and Zhongsha (Middle Bank/Macclesfield) refer, in Chinese, to the West, South and Middle Banks, respectively. China had included Sansha in its county-level administration in 1959; at present it has been elevated to prefecture-level city. It has become a 658 prefecture-level city in Hainan Province, which is the largest Special Economic Zone in China. There is a post office, bank supermarket, hospital, desalination station, TV broadcast tower, and mobile telecommunications station on the island. Fresh water comes by freighter on a 13-hour journey from China’s southernmost province.
In 1988 China and Vietnam fought a naval battle off the Spratlys Island; since then, there has not been an armed conflict in the region. Soon after the clash, the Seventh National People’s Congress, on 13 April 1988, included the Xisha (Paracels), Nansha (Spratlys) and Zhongsha (Macclesfield/Middle Bank) island groups and their surrounding water areas in Hainan Province.
In 1995 China and the Philippines confronted each other for the first time; with the Philippines protesting that China had constructed ‘steel supported structures’ on Mischief Reef. The reef lies well within the Philippine claim and lies close to Palawan islands. This was the first time that China had unilaterally changed the status quo at the expense of a claimant other than Vietnam. It created a substantial crisis in Southeast Asia and mobilized the ASEAN claimant to put together a response to China’s occupation of a reef located within the EEZ of the Philippines.
Against this background it is no surprise that the current unilateral establishment is a well calibrated move. It is not an impulsive decision, and has been carefully considered over the past twenty years. The idea of establishing Sansha city emerged in 2007; however it was deferred due to protests by Vietnam. In June 2012 the State Council approved the establishment of the city. This move by the Chinese amounts to unilateral aggression in times of peace. It represents China’s expanding toehold in disputed waters. Needless to say, the top priority of this new city is to safeguard China’s sovereignty over island and water in the area. The new city would further ‘consolidate administration’ over the Paracel Island chain, of which Yongxing/Woody Island is a part, and then the nearby Spratlys Island chain and Macclesfield Bank.
By expanding its maritime jurisdiction, China can keep an eye on not only the rugged outpost but the vast stretch of water aiming to strengthen its control over disputed water. Xinhua stated, ‘Sansha jurisdiction covers just 13 km of land including other islands and atolls in the SCS around Yongxing but two million kms of surrounding water’. China Daily quoted Luo Baoming, Party Chief of Hainan Province, ‘The provincial government will be devoted to turning the city into an important base to safeguard China’s sovereignty and serve marine resource development’.
The establishment of Sansha is a step further in consolidating Chinese claims in the region. However, it has led to protracted tension between China and Southeast Asian nations, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. This particular move has questioned the international legitimacy of China’s path of peaceful development and its good neighbourly policy in the region. In quest of its irredentist impulse, China is providing an opportunity to an external power like the US to play a role in the region.
Moves like this are adding to the anxiety of the claimants in the region, and has taken the dispute to new heights. Vietnam calls the Sansha Island ‘Phu Lam’ and considers the Chinese takeover a violation of international law. The Philippines does not recognise the city or its jurisdiction. The US, concerned about this unilateral move in the SCS, feels the need for collective diplomacy to resolve competing claims. However, in the absence of any cooperative mechanism in the region, the establishment of Sansha can indicate troubled waters ahead.