Although it is not clear when the Paracels maritime garrison was established, reports of the unit first appeared in the Chinese press in 1985. Nevertheless, China’s deployment of troops to the South China Sea began almost three decades earlier, in the 1950s when the PLA occupied Woody Island in the Amphitrite Group of the Paracels. Following several confrontations with South Vietnamese forces in the Crescent Group of the Paracels in the mid-1950s, Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 instructed the PLA to establish a base on Woody Island and in 1960 regular patrols around the Paracels were initiated. In 1971, the PLAN began to upgrade and expand the infrastructure in the Paracels, which has continued steadily until to the present day and includes a military-capable airfield built over 20 years ago. To date, there has been little to no evidence that the airfield has been used to accommodate “a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters.”
The Xisha maritime garrison is commanded by a senior captain (equivalent to an Army senior colonel), the former head of the PLAN’s 1st Marine Brigade, a main force combat unit in the South Sea Fleet. The number of troops in the maritime garrison is unknown, but a 2002 report from Taiwan stated that China has deployed around 590 troops on the features in controls in the Spratlys (while Vietnam had around 2020). The Ministry of Defense spokesman acknowledged the difference between the two garrisons stating, “the Sansha military garrison and Xisha maritime garrison are separate military organs executing duties according to their respective responsibilities… the Xisha maritime garrison… is responsible for maritime defense and military combat.”
What, then, is the significance of the establishment of the Sansha garrison? First, from a military perspective, it is a minor development. It likely will not command any combat units nor will it result in a substantial increase in the Chinese forces in the South China Sea. Rather, it is designed to enhance coordination with the local government. Its importance is political, part of what the China Daily unabashedly described as China’s effort, “to display its sovereignty over the South China Sea.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Second, because the PLA has maintained a military presence on the features it holds in the South China Sea for decades, the creation of the garrison does not support claims about the growing role of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy or policy in the South China Sea. Instead, the establishment of the garrison reflects the bureaucratic upgrade of an existing department following a change in the administrative status of the associated locality.
Third, militarily, any forces on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea are vulnerable and hard to defend. As retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt has said, “Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag — to say, ‘We are serious.’”
Finally, the general reaction to the creation of the Sansha garrison reflects the limited understanding among analysts and observers of the PLA’s organization despite Beijing’s efforts to describe the structure of the Chinese armed forces in biannual white papers and media reports. For example, none of the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power have ever mentioned this level of organization. In the case of Sansha, the Chinese government could have better explained its decision, while commentators might have examined what garrisons actually do before jumping to ill-founded conclusions
Dennis J. Blasko served as a U.S. Army Attaché to China from 1992 to 1995 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today (second edition, 2012).