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July 22, 2012

China Approves City Council, Military Base in Disputed Islands

by Michael Lipin

China says it has formed a municipal council for a newly established city in a disputed part of the South China Sea, and has authorized the deployment of a military base in the area.

In a report published Sunday, China's official Xinhua news agency says 1,100 residents of several islands known in Chinese as Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha have elected 45 deputies to a municipal people's congress. The islands are part of the new city called Sansha, and the council will be based on an island that China refers to as Yongxing, known in English as Woody Island.

Xinhua also says China's Central Military Commission has approved the formation of a Sansha garrison command responsible for "national defense" and "military operations."

The Chinese government declared the establishment of Sansha last month, saying its role is to administer the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos and surrounding South China Sea waters, which are believed to hold oil and natural gas deposits. The islands are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In a statement Saturday, the Vietnamese government said it opposes the establishment of Sansha. It called the move a "serious violation" of Hanoi's sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly chains, which it claims as part of Danang city and Khanh Hoa province respectively. The state-run Voice of Vietnam quotes authorities in Danang and Khanh Hoa as saying Beijing risks harming the friendship between the two neighbors. 

China has administered the Paracel chain that includes Woody Island since a 1974 naval conflict with Vietnam. 

Oriana Skylar Mastro, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said the formal deployment of Chinese troops in the archipelagos is the latest example of Beijing trying to boost its influence in the area. 

"Are a couple of reservists sitting on some shoals or reefs actually going to make a military difference? Probably not. But, when you look at it in the broader subset of Chinese coercive diplomacy and how they're using exhibitionary military moves to show their resolve and they couple that with political moves, it seems that they're making a very significant leap forward in what they're trying to accomplish in the area," she said. 

China also upset Vietnam last month when Chinese state oil company CNOOC invited foreign investors to jointly develop nine oil fields in the South China Sea. In another move that worried its neighbors, China sent its largest ever fishing fleet to the Spratly islands last week. Chinese fishermen and fisheries personnel have engaged in several confrontations with vessels of other nations in those waters in recent years, drawing more protests. 

Mastro said Chinese officials and media regularly deny that such confrontations reflect an official policy of harassment. 

"You will see Chinese articles about this that will say it's just fishermen that were so upset about what had happened, that they went off on their own and did this, or the Chinese fisheries administration was just doing their job. And a lot of the deniability comes from Chinese academics and policymakers conveying the Chinese position to American academics or policymakers or think tankers. So it makes it difficult for Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States to respond in any aggressive manner if China says, 'we understand you are frustrated, but we can't control it," she said. 

China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have failed to agree on a Code of Conduct for resolving South China Sea territorial disputes. They discussed the issue at an ASEAN summit in Cambodia earlier this month.