Beijing moves to strengthen grip over disputed South China Sea
- New administrative units for Paracel and Spratly Islands are seen as helping to tighten control and help allocate resources and manpower
- There are multiple competing claims in the areas in question and the move risks further tension with the US
The two new districts will be under the authority of the local government in Sansha, a city in the southern island of Hainan.
The new districts will govern the Paracels and Macclesfield Bank – an area claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan – as well as the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters, where there are multiple overlapping claims.
Over the past six years China has sought to expand its control over the South China Sea by building artificial islands and facilities that can be used for military purposes.
Using the Chinese names for the Paracel and Spratly Islands respectively, the Ministry of Civil Affairs announced on Saturday: “The State Council has recently approved the establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city.”
According to the notice, the Xisha administration will be based in Woody Island, also known as Yongxing Island. Meanwhile, the Nansha administration will be placed in the Fiery Cross Reef, referred to as Yongshu Reef in Chinese.
Beijing claims almost all of the area but has conflicting claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The conflict has remained unresolved for decades and has now become another flashpoint with the US.
The Paracel Islands are claimed by Vietnam but were occupied by China in the aftermath of a 1974 invasion that displaced South Vietnamese forces, killing dozens.
This month Vietnam lodged an official protest against the Chinese government after a fishing boat was sunk following a collision with a Chinese coastguard vessel near the islands.
China said the Vietnamese boat had been fishing illegally and sunk after ramming the Chinese vessel.
The sinking provoked an angry reaction from Washington, which accused China of exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to act when other countries were preoccupied with the crisis.
Kang Lin, a professor from Hainan University, said the move to establish the administrations had been expected and said the country was “under international pressure to increase its presence”.
He said: “As the artificial islands and essential infrastructure in the area are now well in place, it is now the right time to make administrative control in the area more effective.
“Meanwhile, there have been continuous scuffles with foreign powers in the waters nearly every month. China sees the need to step up its claim of sovereignty over its territory,” he said, noting the frequent patrols by the US Navy.
The US Navy conducted a record number of patrols near disputed features claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea last year, according to figures from the US Pacific Fleet.
Kang, who specialises in the legal and economic aspects of the South China Sea, said the new administrations meant more manpower and resources would be dedicated to the management of the islands. Departments dedicated to finance and natural resources management are also expected to be set up.
“The administrations can serve as a frontline buffer to immediately deal with any kinds of problems related to the area,” Kang said.
“While the military presence and related build-up activities in the area does not fall into the administration of the local government, obviously there will be better cooperation between the government and such actions with the formation of administrations.”
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the move signalled that Beijing was likely to build more infrastructure and enhance its military presence in the area.
“This move also comes amid the ongoing negotiations on the code of conduct [governing behaviour in the disputed waters],” Koh said.
“It’s clear that Beijing is seeking to further consolidate its gains in the South China Sea before the code ever gets promulgated.
“Even if no code materialises eventually, Beijing would be in a much stronger physical position in the SCS.”
Talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about the code of conduct are ongoing, with the two sides being committed to finalising it by next year.
But progress has been slow since a draft agreement was presented in August 2018.
Beijing has refused to make the code legally binding, while other countries worry it will not help to resolve disputes in the region.