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October 16, 2012

China Undertakes Massive Island Naming Campaign

by Matthew Hilburn

The Chinese government, in an attempt to press claims of sovereignty over thousands of small islands and islets, is giving them official names, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

China has already given names to 1,660 islands and islets and plans to name an additional 1,664 by August of next year, according to the Xinhua report. Provincial authorities are also working on a local island census and will compile information with names and locations of the islands and islets by the end of April 2013.

China counts more than 7,300 islands and islets measuring 500 square meters or larger, the report said.

According to Jacques deLisle a University of Pennsylvania law professor and expert on Chinese law, under generally accepted principles of international law, the way a nation claims sovereignty over uninhabited or sparsely inhabited territory is to exercise sovereignty over it, meaning populating it with nationals, establishing effective government over the people who live there and building an infrastructure.

Another, weaker form of exercising sovereignty, he said is “is reflected in the periodic stationing of hapless People’s Liberation Army soldiers on Mischief Reef (a reef in the Spratly Islands) and the dispatching of a garrison this summer to one of the larger landforms in the Paracel Island (Xisha in Chinese) group.”

Since many of these newly named islands and islets cannot support even that level of population, these forms of exercising sovereignty are impractical there, said deLisle.

“This new and ongoing announcement of ‘naming’ is a still-more abstract, weak or thin form,” he said. “That is, it is better than nothing and is a way of asserting sovereignty. It does little to settle the issue, but it can, of course, be provocative to rival claimants who understandably fear that such moves, left unchallenged, can move the needle in favor of the more assertive party and thus feel compelled to push back.”

Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese foreign policy and security at MIT, says the naming policy is “symbolic.”

“Basically, this is about demonstrating sovereignty over undisputed islands that litter the Chinese coast, he said. "Most of these are uninhabited and best described as rocks. It is not really about establishing sovereignty, as no one else claims them.”

News of the island naming comes amid growing tensions over the sovereignty of numerous islands in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

China is currently embroiled in an escalating dispute with Japan over islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

On Tuesday, Japan said it spotted seven Chinese naval ships near one of the disputed islands, as tensions between the two Asian powers remain high. So far there have been no clashes.

In the South China Sea, China is involved in several territorial disputes, including the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines; the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam; the Pratas Islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan; the Macclesfield Bank, which is claimed by China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam; and the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The islands are contested because of suspected large reserves of oil, natural gas, minerals and fisheries in the areas.

China has been very assertive in staking its claims recently, leading to increased tensions with its neighbors.

Last July, China established a military garrison called Sansha City on one of the Spratly islands.

"The establishment of Sansha City is a wise decision by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee to safeguard national sovereignty and security, to strengthen the protection of resources and overall development in the South China Sea," said Xiao Jie, the First Mayor of the new Sansha City.

Beijing plans to use its Sansha base to increase patrols in waters claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.