China’s newest city is a remote island in the South China Sea barely large enough to host a single airstrip. It has a post office, bank, supermarket and a hospital, but little else. Fresh water comes by freighter on a 13-hour journey from China’s southernmost province.
Welcome to Sansha (三沙), China’s expanding toehold in the world’s most disputed waters, portions of which are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. On Tuesday, as blustery island winds buffeted palm trees, a new mayor declared Sansha to be China’s newest municipality.
Beijing has created the city administration to oversee not only the rugged outpost with a population of just 1,000, but also hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of water where it wants to strengthen its control over disputed — and potentially oil-rich — islands.
The Philippines said it does not recognize the city or its jurisdiction, and Vietnam said China’s actions violated international law. The US also voiced its concern over “unilateral moves” in the South China Sea where it says collective diplomacy is needed to resolve competing claims.
The city administration is on tiny Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島), 350km southeast from China’s tropical Hainan Island. The Cabinet approved Sansha last month to “consolidate administration” over the Paracel (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Spratly (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) archipelagos and the Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Islands, 中沙群島), a large, completely submerged atoll that boasts rich fishing grounds that is claimed by Taiwan and the Philippines.
Taiwan, Vietnam and China claim the Paracels, of which Woody Island, little more than half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, is part. The three countries along with the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim all or parts of the Spratlys.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its island groups, and its disputes occasionally erupt into open confrontation. The islands, many of them occupied by garrisons from the various claimants, sit amid some of the world’s busiest commercial sea lanes, along with rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits. China has approved the formal establishment of a military garrison for Sansha, though specific details have yet to be released.
Official broadcaster China Central Television aired Tuesday morning’s formal establishment ceremony live from Sansha, with speeches from the new mayor and other officials.
The Chinese flag was raised and national anthem played before plaques for the Sansha Municipal Government and the Sansha Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China were unveiled on a white-columned government building.
Mayor Xiao Jie (肖杰) trumpeted Sansha’s important role in protecting China’s sovereignty. He said the designation of Sansha as a new city was “a wise decision made by the party and the government of China to protect the sovereign rights of China, and to strengthen the protection and the development of natural resources.”
The official Xinhua news agency reported earlier that Sansha’s jurisdiction covers just 13km2 of land, including other islands and atolls in the South China Sea around Woody Island, but 2 million square kilometers of surrounding waters.
Sansha means “three sandbanks” in Mandarin and appears to refer to the Chinese names for the disputed island chains and atoll, known in Chinese as the West, South and Middle islands, or Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha.