Beijing will spend more than 10 billion yuan (HK$12.3 billion) to upgrade military and civilian infrastructure at its settlement on Woody Island, a move likely to irk countries with competing claims in the surrounding South China Sea.
Speaking at a news briefing on Friday to mark 100 days since Beijing established Sansha city, municipal government spokesman Chen Jiyang announced plans to turn the island into a fishing, tourism and military-supply centre, the China News Service said yesterday.
The building programme would further consolidate Beijing's control of the island, known as Yongxing in Chinese, which has roughly 1,000 permanent residents. In July, the central government declared Sansha the administrative centre for more than two million square kilometres of sea.
The government's plans include a municipal office complex, an airport expansion, a military supply facility and supply hub for fishery and maritime surveillance vessels. It also intends to build a new port, a desalination plant capable of handling 1,000 tonnes of sea water daily, a 500-kilowatt solar power station, as well as "environmentally friendly" rubbish and waste-water treatment facilities.
Woody Island is the largest of the Paracel chain recaptured by the Chinese during a military clash with Vietnam in 1974. Vietnam and Taiwan retain claims to the chain, one of several territorial disputes China has ongoing in the South China Sea.
In addition to establishing Sansha as the administrative hub for the Paracels, the disputed Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank, an undersea atoll, Beijing set up a division-level People's Liberation Army garrison on the island, about 330 kilometres from Hainan .
The moves have raised concern among other countries with claims to islands in the resource-rich region, including Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. The United States has also stressed the need to keep vital shipping routes through the sea open.
"The 10 billion yuan investment is not a big deal and almost the projects focus on long-term urban planning, not merely military purposes," said Li Jie , a Beijing-based military expert.
"Both the central and local governments want to develop ecotourism in Sansha, but now they just have one coastal cargo ship and a 2,700-metre military airstrip. It's necessary to build a new airport for overseas tourists and a deep-water port that is able to handle cruise liners," Li said.