Sansha: China’s newest city toehold in disputed sea
BEIJING—China’s newest city is a remote island in the West Philippine Sea (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 the Philippines, Vietnam and three 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 of water where it wants to strengthen its control over disputed—and potentially oil-rich—islands.
The Philippines said it did 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 disputed sea where it said collective diplomacy was needed to resolve competing claims.
The city administration is on tiny Yongxing island, 350 kilometers 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 the Philippines and Taiwan.
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.
The Philippines refers to the strategic waterway as the West Philippine Sea, while China and Vietnam call it the South China Sea and East Sea, respectively.
China claims virtually the entire sea and its island groups, and its territorial disputes with other countries 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.
Rites broadcast live
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 the national anthem was 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, saying the island’s designation 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 sq km of land, including other islands and atolls in the West Philippine Sea around Yongxing, but 2 million sq km 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. Fishermen though live on the island all year round.
“The living conditions are pretty simple,” Tan Xiankun, director of the office in Hainan overseeing Xisha and other outlying 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.”
Manila, Hanoi protest
Raul Hernandez, spokesperson of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Manila had 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.
Luong Thanh Nghi, spokesperson of Vietnam’s foreign ministry, said 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 archipelagos,” the statement said.
Asked about the establishment of the city, US state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told a news briefing on 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.” Reports from AP and AFP
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