China turned up the heat on rival claimants to the Spratly and Paracel islands yesterday, with the defence ministry saying it was considering setting up a military command unit in the disputed waters.
A People's Liberation Army general had earlier called on China to set up a division-level military command in Sansha - a newly created prefectural-level city set up to administer the Paracel, Spratly and Macclesfield Bank island chains and nearby waters. A ministry spokesman in Beijing said yesterday that the military was required to establish a corresponding military unit to defend the new city.
'The State Council has approved the establishment of Sansha city,' he said. 'The military will start to study [how to] set up a corresponding local military unit.' He also warned that the PLA would start regular 'combat-ready' patrols in response to 'armed provocation'.
Beijing has locked horns with Hanoi and Manila over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea in recent months.
Analysts said the latest developments indicated a shift in Beijing's tactics in dealing with the disputes. But they also agreed that in the short-term this would be more of a symbolic gesture.
'The military has always been thinking of doing that,' said Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association. 'But in the past they could not talk about this openly because that would upset China's ties with other countries. But now China sees itself being provoked and there is no longer any need to hold back.
'China lacks proper [military] bases in the Spratly Islands and it takes time to build the facilities. So in the short-term this would remain a symbolic gesture.'
Du Jifeng , an expert in Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the defence ministry announcement, along with the establishment of Sansha city and China National Offshore Oil Corporation's offer of tenders to foreign partners for nine oil blocks in the disputed waters, showed Beijing was now more inclined to take 'concrete actions'.
Wong warned that although none of the countries involved in the South China Sea disputes wanted military conflict, the risks of situations getting out of control were growing.
'This is a real concern,' he said. 'Chinese fighter jets or warships sometimes also enter into stand-offs with US or Japanese patrol jets or ships. But all the players involved fully understand the consequences and they have been playing this kind of test-of-strength game for many years. They all know where the bottom lines are ...
'The Vietnamese air force, on the other hand, does not have this kind of experience. There is no tacit understanding between them and the Chinese forces. So if any individual pilot does something risky and crosses the line, things can get out of control.'
The number of reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands forming the Spratly Islands •Islands have coastline of 925km