China Has An 800,000-Square-Mile ‘City’ In The South China Sea
A new report by the U.S. Naval War College pulls together what is known about one of the world’s oddest cities. China Has An 800,000-Square-Mile ‘City’ In The South China Sea
Sansha City was founded by China in 2012 and is the world’s largest city by area, covering 800,000 square miles of the South China Sea within the “nine-dash line” that China claims for itself.
That makes it 1,700 times the size of New York City. Most of Sansha City is salt water, although it includes the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam and Taiwan claim, and the Spratly Islands, various of which are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
City Hall, so to speak, is on Woody Island, one of the Paracels. “Once a remote outpost, Woody Island has become a bustling hub of activity,” says the 57-page, heavily footnoted report, which was written by China expert Zachary Haver for the War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
“The island now boasts expanded port infrastructure, seawater desalination and sewage treatment facilities, new public housing, a functioning judicial system, 5G network coverage, a school, and regular charter flights to and from the mainland.”
Beyond Woody Island, Sansha City is “developing tourism in the Paracel Islands, attracting hundreds of newly registered companies, cultivating aquaculture, and encouraging long-term residency,” the report says. There are jails and a courthouse, where two people were tried and sentenced for buying and transporting endangered wildlife in the Spratly Islands.
The obvious question is why China is going to such lengths to build a civilian infrastructure in a watery region that is effectively under control of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and China’s semi-militarized coast guard.
Haver’s nuanced answer is that China’s system of “military-civil fusion” is “a mechanism to govern contested areas as if they were Chinese territory,” like any mainland city. Sansha City is effectively an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. “The expansion of the city’s party-state institutions allows municipal authorities to directly govern contested areas of the South China Sea and ensures the primacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests in local decision-making,” the report says.
Sansha City is what China calls a prefecture-level city, which on the mainland is an administrative unit that includes a central city as well as surrounding cities, towns, villages, and rural areas. In other words, geographically large—but not this large.
The “normalized administrative control” exercised by Sansha City is strongest in the Paracels, but “elements of this system also exist in the Spratly Islands and show signs of expanding,” writes Haver, who is a fellow at the Center for Advanced China Research, lived in China for three years, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
Sansha City, just nine years old, is evidence that China is settling in for a long stay. “In entrusting these responsibilities to the municipal party-state and supporting the city’s development, Beijing has revealed that its ambitions extend beyond dominating the South China Sea via CCG [Chinese Coast Guard] and PLA Navy operations,” Haver concludes. “Through Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control, China is gradually transforming contested areas of the South China Sea into de facto Chinese territory.”
The US hypocrisy On The South China Sea And Diego Garcia
The U.S. has publicly accused China of violating the existing international order, bullying other claimants, and crimes against the environment in the South China Sea. China may well be guilty—at least from the US perspective. But the same and more can be said of U.S. behaviour regarding disputed Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean.
The U.S. claims to uphold what it deems to be the ‘international order’ and often calls out and unilaterally punishes those countries who do not abide by its interpretation thereof. Indeed, the U.S. says that in the South China Sea in particular, China is violating the ‘international order’ and trying to revise it through its claims and actions – – including rejection of an international arbitration decision against it. Again this may be so.
But the U.S. also frequently steps outside the ‘international order’ that it helped build in its interests and now leads and claims to hold sacrosanct—unless it goes against its immediate interests. Alone among maritime powers the U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Yet it accuses China – a ratifier – of violating the Convention in the South China Sea and even uses warships to challenge its claims and regimes that in its interpretation violate it.
It has also repeatedly lambasted China for refusing to accept and abide by an arbitration decision against it regarding its claims there that was rendered through a process mandated by UNCLOS.
But when the U.S. had an opportunity to support an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for Mauritius against Britain regarding ownership of the strategically important island of Diego Garcia that is home to a US military base, it not only declined but did the opposite.
Diego Garcia is an atoll just south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean. It is the largest of 60 small islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago which was part of the British colony of Mauritius. Between 1968 and 1973, the indigenous population of Diego Garcia was forcibly removed in a possible crime against humanity by the U. K. and the U.S. through bribery, bullying and denial of return to any who left the island.
The U.K. then leased the atoll to the U.S. and it built very large naval and air force bases there. In doing so, like China, it severely damaged the environment. The main difference is that no country filed a complaint against it under UNCLOS –as the Philippines did against China –with US backing. Of course unlike China, the U.S. as a non-ratifier could not be brought before its dispute settlement mechanisms.
The bases became fully operational in 1986. Like China’s occupied South China Sea features, their strategic value is paramount.
Diego Garcia was used for U.S. military operations during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and allegedly for CIA renditions. It continues to play a key role in America’s military strategy regarding the Indian Ocean and its environs –including serving as a base for bomber training missions over the South China Sea.
A difference between U.S. use of Diego Garcia and China’s use of its occupied features in the South China Sea and is that the US uses it to maintain hegemony over the region while China uses its features to defend itself against US hegemony.
China has installed capabilities on its features to detect and if necessary target US intelligence probes searching for and targeting its nuclear submarines hiding in the South China Sea. Unlike China, the U.S. has not disavowed a first nuclear strike. Thus China views its capability to protect its retaliatory nuclear strike submarines as critical to its defense against US bullying and indeed its very continued existence.
Regarding Diego Garcia, the ICJ ruled that decolonization of Mauritius “was not lawfully complete” when it attained independence because Britain retained control over the Chagos Archipelago. The ICJ advisory opinion was rendered at the request of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The resolution making the request was supported by 94 countries. But it was vehemently opposed by Britain and the U.S..
Britain maintained that the dispute was a bilateral matter between it and Mauritius and indicated it would reject any ICJ decision against it—and it did so. This is remarkably similar to China’s position regarding the international arbitration brought against it by the Philippines. In that case, China argued that the matter should be negotiated between it and the Philippines.
It refused to participate in the hearings and when the decision went against it, it declared that it would neither recognize nor abide by the binding decision. This was also similar to the U.S. behavior when in 1986 Nicaragua successfully brought a complaint against it to the ICJ for supporting the Contras and mining its harbor. But the U.S. has severely criticized China for taking this position and alleged that it was a prime example of China’s revisionist tendencies regarding existing international law and order.
The political context of the South China Sea disputes and that surrounding Diego Garcia may be different. But the ‘violations’ of principles are the same—defiance of the ‘international order’, ‘bullying’ and crimes against the environment. It is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to criticize and castigate China for these ‘violations’ while it does the same.
China Tests Biden With South China Sea Tactic That Misled Obama
Based on the official view from Beijing, the Philippines has no reason to worry about Chinese fishing boats sitting along a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
The vessels — initially numbering in the hundreds — were simply “taking shelter from the wind” and the Philippines should view the situation in a “rational light,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on March 22 when the news first broke.
Two weeks later, more than 40 boats are still at Whitsun Reef and the statements are getting more and more terse. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Department on Monday warned China it would issue daily diplomatic protests as long as the “maritime militia” remains in place, using the same language as the U.S. to describe the fleet stationed in an area known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao in China.
“If your goal is to take over a sea space and atoll without fighting for it, this is a brilliant if dishonest tactic,” said Carl Schuster, a former operations director at U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. “Only professional seamen know it’s a lie — no one ‘shelters’ their ships in a storm area weeks ahead of a storm. If they truly are commercial craft, it is costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars a day having them sit idly lashed together.”
All in all, it’s beginning to look more and more like Beijing is probing whether President Joe Biden will take any action after pledging to work with allies in the region to deter Chinese assertiveness. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin has blamed the Obama administration for failing to stop China during a similar incident in 2012 at the Scarborough Shoal, a precursor to President Xi Jinping’s move to build military installations throughout the South China Sea.
“It is a test to see what the administration is willing to do,” said Schuster, who is now an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University’s diplomacy and military science program. “How the U.S. reacts will determine the next test. Right now, everything we have done is more rhetorical than substantive.”
The U.S. last month said it stands by the Philippines while accusing China of using a “maritime militia to intimidate, provoke and threaten other nations.” Asked about Chinese relations at a press briefing last month, Biden said his administration was “going to hold China accountable to follow the rules” in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
One big problem is how to calibrate the response. China’s use of commercial fishing boats amounts to a “gray zone” tactic that allows Beijing to deny anything is amiss. Sending an aircraft carrier or other warships near the reef risks appearing like an overreaction that would make the U.S. look like the aggressor.
On the other hand, doing nothing could look weak. Over the past few years the U.S. has stepped up challenges to Chinese sovereignty in the waters, increasing the frequency of so-called freedom of navigation operations around disputed territory.
The Biden administration also reaffirmed that the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty covers any attacks in the South China Sea, a clarification made under President Donald Trump that came after decades of official ambiguity.
Another major complication for Biden is Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, who has undermined the alliance while hailing closer ties with Beijing.
“As long as President Duterte is in power there are very limited options for the Navy,” said Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy who is now a professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government. “Bereft of any coherent strategy it is limited to filing diplomatic protests and pronouncements against China’s through social media.”
The Philippine statement on Monday used some of the strongest language yet, saying a 2016 international arbitration award made clear China has no historic rights to fish in the area, which falls within the Southeast Asian country’s exclusive economic zone. It also denounced the Chinese Embassy for criticizing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has said the weather is fine and the boats have no reason to stay. “I am no fool,” he said over the weekend.
Duterte’s government was reacting to an April 3 statement by China saying the waters had been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years” and reiterating that it was “completely normal” for the vessels to “take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions.” China has denied the boats constitute a maritime militia and said it hoped Philippine officials would “avoid any unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions.”
Duterte has so far personally stayed quiet, though his spokesman Harry Roque said his view of the situation hasn’t changed.
“The president’s stand is that we will stand by our rights, but this is not a reason to resort to violence,” Roque said. “He is confident that because of our close friendship with China, we will be able to resolve this.”
One factor restraining Duterte from a tougher stance may be the need to secure vaccines: Metro Manila was locked down again last week amid the nation’s worst coronavirus surge. The Philippines currently sources most of its vaccines from China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., with Duterte attending a March 29 ceremony in which Chinese Ambassador Huang Zilian said the jabs were testament of a “closer partnership in the new era.”
The U.S. “isn’t so naive” this time around after its failed 2012 effort to strike a deal for a mutual withdrawal at the Scarborough Shoal “caused immense damage to U.S. credibility in Southeast Asia,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.
“The Americans are wary of wading into this and not knowing if they’ll end up being blamed for escalating the situation, which is a real possibility with the capricious leadership in Manila,” he said. “A perfunctory response — that’s all that’s available to the Philippines.”
Digital Yuan Campaign Planned For Contested Island In The South China Sea
Participants will receive a discount for every central bank digital currency expenditure worth 100 yuan.
South China’s Hainan Province, which administers the prefectural Sansha City on a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, will run a two-week campaign later this month to promote the use of the digital yuan among island residents.
The city, established in 2012, is on the front line of disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea and is unusual in being both the People Republic of China’s smallest city by population and its largest by geographic reach — formally encompassing over 280 islands and their surrounding waters, reaching almost 800,000 square miles of sea and land area.
Between April 12 and April 25, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s Hainan Branch, together with Haikou Branch of China’s central bank and the Sansha municipal government, plans to host a themed digital yuan consumption parade in a bid to encourage consumer adoption of the forthcoming digital currency.
Official reports herald the event as a temporary transformation of Yongxing Island, where the city’s administrative seat is located, into a “digital renminbi consumer island.” The promotional campaign will be targeted at Sansha City government staff, local corporate employees, other institutions and residents of the island.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank’s Hainan Branch, or ICBC Hainan, will support various consumption offers across island supermarkets, hotels and restaurants, where participants will receive a 99-yuan discount ($15) for every expenditure worth 100 yuan.
ICBC Hainan’s merchant and mobile banking infrastructure, together with digital yuan wallets, will be implemented to illustrate the safety and convenience of the new currency and foster public awareness of it. In a brief outline for the public, Chinese official media reports explain:
“The digital renminbi can be simply equivalent to the cash renminbi, but in a different form, and has the characteristics of legal compensation and controllable anonymity.”
As previously reported, China has already organized a swath of digital yuan promotional events, including a recent one in conjunction with International Women’s Day and festive lotteries for the Chinese New Year. Earlier pilots to test the central bank digital currency and its infrastructure were held in the regions of Shenzhen, Suzhou, Xiong’an and Chengdu provinces, with further tests across Shanghai, Hainan, Changsha, Qingdao, Dalian and Xi’an set for 2021.