China Plans Military Garrison To Defend A Disputed Island From Vietnam

Posted on July 24, 2012


Some of the Paracel Islands

Beijing will establish a military garrison on a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea, China’s defence ministry said on Monday, a move likely to provoke further tensions with its neighbours.

>> Philippines Slams China’s Establishment of Sansha City in South China Sea
>> Nations at Impasse Over South China Sea, Group Warns

The troops will operate from Sansha in the Paracel Islands, one of two archipelagos in the South China Sea that are claimed by both China and Vietnam.

The garrison, approved by the Central Military Commission, “will be responsible for the Sansha area national defence mobilisation and reserve forces activities”, the defence ministry said on its website.

The ministry did not say when the garrison would be established, but the move to station troops on the Paracels is likely to provoke Hanoi’s ire.

Beijing’s move last month to designate Sansha as its administrative centre for the Paracels and the Spratly Islands prompted a rare demonstration on Sunday in the Vietnamese capital against China’s territorial assertions.

China and South Vietnam once administered different parts of the Paracels but after a brief conflict in 1974 Beijing took control of the entire group of islands. Vietnam holds several of the larger Spratly Islands.

China says it owns much of the South China Sea, while the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia each claim portions.

Disputes have flared in recent weeks, with Vietnam and the Philippines criticising what they call Chinese encroachment.

In June, the state-backed China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced it was welcoming bids to explore oil blocks in the disputed waters, a week after Vietnam adopted a law placing the Spratlys under its sovereignty.

A July 13 meeting of the Association of Southeast Nations broke up without a joint statement for the first time in 45 years because members could not agree on how to refer to China’s behaviour in the disputed waters.

The countries are drafting a “code of conduct” to try to overcome the rift.


Tiny island, big reach: China aims to strengthen control over South China Sea with new city

BEIJING — 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, China’s expanding toehold in the world’s most disputed waters, portions of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other neighbors. 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 (miles) 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 United States 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 Yongxing island, 350 kilometers (220 miles) southeast from China’s tropical Hainan Island. The Cabinet approved Sansha last month to “consolidate administration” over the Paracel and Spratly island chains and the Macclesfield Bank, a large, completely submerged atoll that boasts rich fishing grounds that is also claimed by Taiwan and the Philippines.

Vietnam and China both claim the Paracels, of which Yongxing, little more than half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, is part. The two countries along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan 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 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 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) of land, including other islands and atolls in the South China Sea around Yongxing, but 2 million square kilometers (770,000 square miles) 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 Banks, or Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha.

A description from a former People’s Liberation Army officer who was among the officials overseeing the island before Sansha was established paints a picture of a harsh and isolated post where officials rotate staffing for a month at a time. Though, he said fishermen live there all year round.

“The living conditions are pretty simple,” Tan Xiankun, director of the office in Hainan overseeing Xisha and other South China Sea territories, told The Associated Press in 2010. “It’s very humid and hot, more than 30 degrees, and there’s salt everywhere. There’s no fresh water, except for what’s shipped in and what’s collected from rain water.”

Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Manila has expressed its concern and registered a strong protest with Beijing over the decision to set up a military garrison on Sansha.

“The Philippines does not recognize the Sansha city and the extent of its jurisdiction and considers recent measures taken by China as unacceptable,” Hernandez told a news conference.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that Vietnam had protested to the Chinese foreign ministry.

“China’s establishment of the so-called ‘Sansha City’ … violated international law, seriously violating Vietnam sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes,” the statement said.

Asked about the establishment of the city, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing Tuesday: “We remain concerned should there be any unilateral moves of this kind that would seem to prejudge an issue that we have said repeatedly can only be solved by negotiations, by dialogue and by a collaborative diplomatic process among all the claimants.”

The United States says it does not take a position on the competing sovereignty claims over land features in the South China Sea but has a national interest in freedom of navigation in its busy sea lanes and in maintenance of peace and stability.

A report released Tuesday by the International Crisis Group think tank said that although China’s large claim to the South China Sea and its assertive approach has rattled other claimants, Beijing is “not stoking tensions on its own.”

“South East Asian claimants, with Vietnam and the Philippines in the forefront, are now more forcefully defending their claims — and enlisting outside allies — with considerable energy,” it said, a reference to Washington’s move to influence the Asian balance of power by supporting China’s neighbors.

The report also warned that the risk of escalation was high and urged claimants to find ways to jointly manage energy resources and fishing areas while also agreeing on a mechanism for handling incidents.

“In the absence of such a mechanism, tensions in the South China Sea could all too easily be driven to irreversible levels,” it said.


Associated Press

China’s Newest City Raises Threat of Conflict in South China Sea

China has declared its establishment of a municipal settlement on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea. The move, combined with an earlier announcement about the islands’ militarization, further raises tensions in this geopolitical hot spot

A ceremony is held on July 24, 2012, to mark China’s establishment of Sansha, a city on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel archipelago

Sansha, China’s newest city, would seem to be a paradise. It has tropical waters, about 2 million sq km and just 3,500 permanent residents on 13 sq km of palm-covered islands. There’s an airstrip but no airlines yet, so transportation is still largely relegated to a 17-hour boat trip. But perhaps the biggest drawback is that it sits in the South China Sea, where rival territorial claims have intensified in recent months. On Tuesday, Sansha established a prefecture-level municipal government, and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) says it will soon establish a military garrison there. Sansha is the tiniest city of its kind in China, but it is having an outsize impact on the country’s increasingly tense territorial disputes with some of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

(MORE: South China Sea Disputes: Is This How War Starts?)

China and Taiwan both claim almost all of the 3 million-sq-km South China Sea, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have partial claims. All except Brunei occupy disputed islands and reefs in the sea. The possibility of rich, undersea oil and gas resources has led to increasing conflict between the neighboring states, and analysts say China’s new city will only worsen the disputes. “All trends are in the wrong direction,” says Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “The claimant countries have hardened their positions on jurisdictional claims. That’s made a legal resolution or a negotiated settlement harder because there’s less room for compromise.”

The dispute roiled the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign-ministers meeting in Cambodia that took place July 9–13. It failed to agree on a concluding joint statement for the first time since the group was founded in 1967. While the Philippines and Vietnam pushed for adding the South China Sea standoff to the statement, China’s ally Cambodia balked at including the issue, which China says it wants to resolve in bilateral discussions with each claimant rather than in a multilateral forum.

In April, the Philippines’ largest warship, the World War II–era frigate Rajah Humabon, confronted Chinese fishing boats it accused of harvesting endangered species near the Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island and the Philippines the Bajo de Masinloc. China sent marine surveillance vessels, and the Philippines soon replaced its warship with coast-guard craft, resulting in a standoff that still festers. The Philippines says it recalled its ships, but Chinese vessels remain near the shoal. “If someone entered your yard and told you he owned it, would you agree?” Philippine President Benigno Aquino said in his annual state of the nation address on Monday. “Would it be right to give away that which is rightfully ours?”

(MORE: Can Aquino’s China Visit Ease Tensions?)

Many Southeast Asian states are beefing up their armed forces in response to China’s new assertiveness. Last year the military budget for the Philippines, one of the weakest military powers in Asia, nearly doubled. That means increased risk in the South China Sea, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “While increased military power is likely to raise the threshold for, as well as cost of, armed conflict, it could also embolden countries to be more pro-active in their territorial claims, making skirmishes harder to resolve,” the report said. “There is a risk that in seeking to flex their military muscle, claimant states will engage in brinkmanship that could lead to unintentional escalation.”

The Philippines and Vietnam both protested China’s creation of Sansha. China announced the move on the same day that Vietnam issued a law declaring the Paracels and Spratlys to be in its jurisdiction. China, which took control of the Paracels after a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974, established Sansha’s government on the largest Paracel isle, Woody Island. Also known as Yongxing in Chinese, the island has a grocery store, hospital, library and karaoke parlor but as yet no kindergarten, according to reports of Chinese journalists who have visited. Yongxing will likely be the headquarters of a new PLA garrison, though few details have been revealed. “This pronouncement of a garrison is symbolic,” says Rory Medcalf, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “It may take a long time to operationalize, but it is placing a firm military marker on China’s claim in the South China Sea.”

The disputing parties have often used paramilitary and civilian forces such as coast guard and fisheries enforcement agencies to defend their territorial claims. The move to establish a Sansha garrison, though, is a sign of the growing reliance on hard power. Another indicator was the July 11 grounding of a Chinese navy frigate on Half Moon Shoal, which is claimed by both China and the Philippines. Perhaps more surprising than the initial presence of the Chinese navy ship just 100 km off the Philippines’ Palawan province was the speed with which it received assistance from its compatriots. “In about 24 hours they got five ships, including a tugboat, to Half Moon Shoal, and that’s quite a way from China,” says Storey. “That goes back to the point of increasing militarization. These warships were clearly on patrol or somewhere in the area.”

For now, the most significant impact of Sansha may be to increase the importance of the conflict for average Chinese citizens. In recent weeks Chinese media have run personalized stories of reporters visiting the islands. “Both the city and the garrison unfortunately raise the emotional stakes for Chinese people,” says Medcalf. “That makes compromise even harder.”


Posted in: Politics