According to an update on the PRC's Ministry of National Defense website (which cites a Chinese news source), China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) has apparently approved the formation and deployment of a military garrison in the recently created city of Sansha. If this is accurate, tensions in the South China Sea could rise yet again.
This latest move occurs after the State Council on June 21 turned Sansha into a prefecture-level city to administer more than 200 islets, sandbanks and reefs in the Spratly (Nansha), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha), and the Xisha (Paracel) islands, sparking protests from the Philippines, which has overlapping claims with China in the area.
Beijing made the move as Vietnam, which is also involved in sovereignty disputes there, adopted a “law of the sea” that placed the Spratlys and Paracel islands under its jurisdiction. Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are also involved in various territorial disputes over the island chains and surrounding waters.
In all, Sansha City will be responsible for 13 square kilometers of island area and 2 million square kilometers of water. Since 1959, China had only had a county-level administrative office to exercise sovereignty over the area.
Efforts were also launched by the Hainan provincial legislature earlier this month to prepare the terrain for the city’s first people’s congress, which analysts regard as a move to build the city’s political power base. The government seat will be located on Yongxing Island (also known as Woody Island) in the Paracel archipelago. The Sansha people’s congress will reportedly comprise 60 directly elected delegates, with a Standing Committee of fifteen members
The original news report, citing sources in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Guangzhou Military Command, said the division-level garrison command would fall under the PLA’s Hainan provincial sub-command and be responsible for the city’s national defense mobilization, military operations and reserves.
Under normal circumstances, prefecture-level cities are usually given army divisions consisting of at least 6,000 PLA personnel, though so far Chinese authorities have provided little information on the plan. Judging from activity in Hainan in recent years, we may see the garrison forces to possibly include the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN).
An airstrip was completed on Yongxing in 1990 that can accommodate transport and fighter aircraft, including Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30MKK, and in recent years fuel depots, four aircraft hangars, and naval docks long and deep enough for destroyers and frigates have been built or upgraded. The PLA is also believed to have deployed various signals intelligence (SIGINT) stations on Yongxing and surrounding islets.
Such preparatory work, which began in the late 1990s and picked up in the first decade of the 21st century, casts doubts over Chinese claims that the decision to create Sansha City was a result of Vietnam’s passage of the law of the sea bill last month. It also undermines Beijing’s argument that its recent behavior in the South China Sea was in response to increasing assertiveness by Vietnam and the Philippines.
The case can be made that the latest developments are part of a series of efforts complementing China’s extension plans for the South China Sea, which centers around the recently completed naval facility near Yulin on Hainan Island. Seen from this perspective, the deployment of a garrison to Sansha City could be an attempt to provide the Chinese military with forward deployment or possibly refueling capability.
No matter how one looks at it, such moves are by no means reactive. The time when China relied mostly on fishing boats to enforce its claims in the South China Sea could soon be over.