China’s New South China Sea Capital

A small city emerges from the sea

By: Todd Crowell

Beijing administers its vast though unrecognized South China Sea empire from a little town called Sansha that has grown up on one of the Paracel Islands. Once home for itinerant fishermen, Sansha has grown into a town with a permanent population of about 1,800 people, many of them civilians such as teachers, doctors, and construction workers.

This bustling community was incorporated in 2012 to serve as the administrative center for all of the islands, atolls, reefs, and just plain rocks in the South China Sea that Beijing claims are China’s historic sovereign territory. Formally, a prefecture of Hainan province, its leaders report directly to Beijing.

Sansha’s sway covers about 2 million square kilometers of water, or to put another way, about 20 square kilometers of natural and reclaimed land. This includes all of the Paracels, all of the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal. The township occupies all of what the West calls Woody Island, largest in the Paracels for the Chinese.

Chinese cruise liners now routinely sail the waters between Sanya, a resort on Hainan island, and Sansha or possibly two or three other small islands with no amenities but lovely beaches. Certainly, they are cheaper than going to Hawaii or Bali. These trips, for Chinese citizens only, are often called “patriotic” missions since they help support Beijing’s claims.

Beijing recently announced the division of the Sansha township into two subordinate administrative districts, one for the Paracels with the district office island on Xisha (AKA Woody island) and the other on Fiery Cross Reef one of the three fortified reclaimed islands in the Spratlys.

The West worries constantly that Beijing plans to “militarize” these holdings. They might do as much to worry about the “civilianization” of the South China Sea. The more these permanently occupied and unoccupied features look like normal localities with schools, hospitals, and badminton courts, they only strengthen Beijing’s claims that they are literally a part of mainland China.

Presumably, the two new administrative districts will require civilian civil servants to run them. Beijing claimed that it was just a normal administrative move. “Eight years after China set Sansha as a city-level administrative unit, it is now time to subdivide it with different districts,” wrote the Global Times, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course, Sansha-Woody island is not completely civilian. The Chinese have deployed H-9 anti-aircraft missiles there, and fighters have been known to land at Woody Island’s extended runway, although none are apparently based there permanently. In all, China has built some kind of facility, ranging from small vessel ports to helicopter landing zones on 20 SCS outposts.

Three of the Spratlys boast a runway that can accommodate high-performance jets, plus hangers to house 24 fighters and some transport aircraft. There is also evidence that Beijing is deploying anti-aircraft missiles. All they lack, as of this writing, to be fully realized bases are the aircraft themselves. So far, only a few civilian aircraft have landed on these islands. Other land features in the Spratly’s support other facilities such as radar sites or simply lighthouses.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry lodged a strong protest of the administrative initiative. Vietnam claims all the Paracel islands and is still smarting from the way the Chinese took control of South Johnson Reef in the Spratly group. The lopsided naval 1988 skirmish left 64 Vietnamese soldiers and sailors dead and two vessels sunk.

America’s response to China’s various claims in the South China Seas has been to increase the number of “FONOP” or freedom of navigation operations. USN deliberately sends warships through what China claims are territorial waters around their fortified island features. It is meant to underscore that Washington considers them illegal.

Washington has sent 23 FONOPs since 2015. The first FONOP of this year took place in January using one destroyer. There has been a pronounced increase in FONOPs in 2019. Most have been in the Spratly group. But the USN has conducted two FONOP operations near Triton Island in the Paracels, the most recent being on July 1, 2017.

Triton is the western-most island in the Paracels, closer to Vietnam than China and the FONOP may actually have been aimed as much at Hanoi, which also makes what Washington says are excessive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Triton is not an artificial island like those in the Spratlys, although it does have a helicopter pad and a small harbor and a very large Chinese flag.

China seized the Paracels in a short, sharp war in 1974. The South Vietnamese naval vessels regularly chased away fishermen from waters it claimed in the Paracel group. During that time South Vietnam was allied with the U.S. and there was little Beijing could do about it, but by 1974 Beijing perceived American support for South Vietnam was waning.

On January 16, 1974, Vietnamese soldiers discovered Chinese troops occupying Duncan island in the western Parcels, and the South Vietnamese (this was before the 1975 surrender) attempted to recapture it. It quickly escalated into a battle between two decrepit navies as South Vietnam tried to reconquer Duncan. The Chinese responded with an amphibious landing to consolidate their control. Significantly, Saigon requested help from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but the U.S. Navy was under orders not to intervene.

Beijing’s media recently reported that China was sending some “mental health” units to the southern-most occupied islands in the Spratlys. It was an admission that island life may not be so idyllic for the soldiers and perhaps some civilians, bring cooped up on tiny artificial islands with northing much besides beaches or badminton to relieve the monotony.