China's "City" in the South China Sea?

Commentary | August 20, 2012

Chinese translation (at bottom) courtesy of Luo Min of Leshan Teachers College.

Diplomatic tensions between China and its neighbors have been rising in recent months, reaching a new high when China announced on June 21, 2012 that it had formally approved the establishment of a prefecture level administration, called Sanshashi in Chinese, for disputed territories in the South China Sea. The fear in neighboring countries is that China’s growing naval power is emboldening it to become more aggressive. The United States released an official statement on August 3 criticizing China’s new administrative measures, prompting an angry response from Beijing.   

EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin, who is the author of China’s Ocean Frontier: International Law, Military Force and National Development (1998), offers some essential background on this dispute and then comments on two key questions: What is China’s intent with the Sansha City announcement, and what are the implications of Washington’s reaction to it?

Islands or Rocks?

There is an important distinction to be made between the Paracel Islands in the north and the Spratly Islands in the south. The Paracel Islands include some relatively big islands that can naturally support at least minimal human habitation (one of the tests whether they qualify for an economic zone). For this reason, they are susceptible to administrative actions or human activities, like guano collection, that might allow a state to claim to have exercised sovereignty over the land in the past. If a settlement could be reached between two states (China and Vietnam) over sovereignty, few other states would object to the sovereign state from extending an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles from these islands. China has controlled the Paracel Islands completely since  it evicted military forces of South Vietnam from them in 1974. In 1958, the government of North Vietnam had recognized Chinese claims to the Paracel Islands and had made no claim of its own until after the unification of Vietnam. (The Vietnamese claim relies in part on acts by France as a colonial power in Vietnam prior to 1954.)

The Spratly Islands present a very different picture from the Paracel group. Those islands are not really a distinct group that might be accorded consideration as a single administrative unit under the international law of territorial acquisition. It is an agglomeration of reefs and rocks with a spread from end to end of around one thousand kilometers, including a handful of very small, scattered islands. Chinese sources have identified 193 named reefs, shoals, submerged reefs or hidden shoals. Western charts recognise as many as twelve distinct island groups; Chinese terminology refers to at least five separate groups as well as numerous individual islands not associated with the five groups There are so many claimants to all or some of these islands that it is almost impossible to envision any meaningful legal settlement between the parties that would serve as the basis for determining an EEZ boundary. 

All of the features occupied by China in the Spratly Islands are in fact submerged reefs or rocks that have been built up with concrete to enable a handful of military personnel to be stationed there. China has had few other options because other claimants have occupied all of the natural islands and China has chosen not to try to evict them. This set of circumstances is very important. China and other claimants will probably only reach a settlement on maritime boundaries in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands that ignores them as base points for devising EEZ boundaries. China might negotiate away its claim to this or that reef or rock in the Spratly Islands, as it has given away small amounts of territory in settlements of border disputes with contiguous states on its land borders. China is unlikely ever to negotiate away its claim to the Paracel Islands, for reasons outlined in my book, China’s Ocean Frontier.


The Taiwan Connection

China’s policy in the South China Sea island disputes is intimately connected with the Taiwan issue. Taiwan claims the same island groups claimed by China. In fact, when the Chinese government in Beijing came to power in 1949 it inherited the claims from the Republic of China.  Taiwan was the first government to send military forces to occupy islands in the Spratly group, first in 1946 and then again in 1956. Taiwan has maintained a small military unit or administrative presence on one island in the Spratly group continuously since 1956. China was so circumspect about this situation in the Spratly Islands that it waited until 1988 to station any military personnel on the small number of reefs and rocks it occupies. The Chinese military forces have avoided any clash with Taiwanese counterparts in the island group. As long as Taiwan maintains a full claim to all of the islands on behalf of a unitary China, it will be impossible for the Chinese government in Beijing to negotiate any settlement. For third parties there is also a complicating factor to the Taiwan claim. Under international law, Taiwan can probably not be accorded any standing since it is not recognized by states committed to the “one China” policy.


What is China doing with the Sansha City announcement and related PLA move?

On July 21, 2012, China’s State Council announced the establishment of the prefectural-level administration, Sanshashi (which has been translated by numerous sources as Sansha City) to administer island groups that it claims in the South China Sea. The government seat will be stationed on Woody Island, part of the Paracel group. This upgraded the level of administration from that announced in 1988, when China set up the county-level Administrative Office for the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and Macclesfield Bank (a wholly submerged marine feature). On July 23, the PLA announced that it would set up a new garrison level command of ground force personnel responsible for managing the city's national defence mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations, with subsequent information that the garrison would be led by a senior colonel.

According to Chinese sources, the moves were in retaliation for administrative measures taken by two rival claimants, Vietnam and the Philippines, in recent years. In 2009, the Philippines issued a new law on its territorial sea which reiterated its claim to part of the Spratly group. At that time, a Chinese military analyst was cited by a pro-China Hong Kong paper, Ta kung pao, as advocating three measures in response:

  • speeding up the process of demarcating the baselines of China's territorial waters;
  • tightening up effective administrative management and control of the islands; and
  • intensifying readiness for naval operations, such as training with operating weaponry.

On June 21, 2012, Vietnam passed a new law on its maritime jurisdiction, including a reiteration of its claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The anticipated passing of that law was the subject of an official meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese officials in October 2011. China’s failure to convince Vietnam to change course in those talks prompted it to take two of the measures foreshadowed by the military commentator in 2009 as mentioned above. (In fact, the Sansha City announcement was foreshadowed in December 2007, but shelved after street demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City against China that led to consultations a month later between the two countries. According to a Chinese official statement, the two countries agreed then to settle the “maritime” disputes by dialogue and consultation. Both sides refuse to negotiate on the territorial disputes.)

The new moves announced by China are largely symbolic in character and will not alter China’s calculation about the use of force. Since moving its units into the Spratly Islands in 1988 when there was a minor clash with Vietnamese forces, China has avoided combat operations. It has engaged in a range of other pressure tactics, as have other claimants. The new army garrison is small, administrative in character and not likely to affect any military balance in the South China Sea. It is on an island in the Paracel islands at least 400 nautical miles away from any island where rival claimants have military units. According to an Associated Press report of August 3 2012, the responsibility for triggering the latest round of tensions between China and the Philippines “began after Chinese fishing boats were stopped by Philippine vessels.” The A.P. dispatch then described the following sequence of events: “Manila deployed a navy ship, supplied by the U.S. the previous year, leading China to send more vessels of its own and quarantine Philippine fruit exports to China. Manila says Beijing has not fully complied with a June agreement, supported by the U.S., for a mutual withdrawal and has used barriers to block Philippine access to the reef.”

China has promoted cooperative measures to protect international merchant shipping at the global level, and at the regional level in supporting anti-piracy measures. As a trade-dependent economy, China has very strong vested interests in protecting sea-borne trade. China does have naval and air forces based on or near Hainan Island that could interfere with international merchant shipping, but it has fewer submarines in its entire navy in 2012 (46) than the 47 that were lost by Germany in just the month of May 1943 at the height of the war on shipping in the Atlantic in World War II. Moreover, the naval balance of power, like the overall military balance in the maritime regions of the Western Pacific, is very heavily tilted in favor of the United States and its allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. China could try to disrupt shipping, but the United States and its allies have made plain their very strong intention to oppose, with force if necessary, any such action.

China’s official claims to the geographic extent of its maritime jurisdiction (territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf) conform to the letter of international law. The possible exception is that official Chinese maps of the South China Sea show a dotted line that encompasses the entire South China Sea. This line first appeared in maps released by the Republic of China in 1946 and has been interpreted by many observers to imply a territorial waters claim to the entire South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China has never officially asserted such a claim, and it has made declarations and passed laws which suggest that it has no such claim. The United States and other countries have called on China to clarify its view on this dotted line in the South China Sea.


What are the implications of the United States official reaction?

On August 3, 2012, the U.S. Department of State reacted to the news with a statement that called on all parties to settle their disputes, singling out China for its Sansha City announcements. The statement said: “Recent developments include an uptick in confrontational rhetoric, disagreements over resource exploitation, coercive economic actions, and the incidents around the Scarborough Reef, including the use of barriers to deny access. In particular, China's upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha City and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region.” This statement marked a clear departure by the United States in singling out one of the parties for escalating tensions through a direct challenge of domestic legislation and a minor deployment of troops.

For its part, China demanded to know why the United States had singled it out: “Why has the United States chosen to turn a blind eye to the acts of some country marking out a large number of oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea and making domestic legislation claiming as its own China's islands, reefs and waters? Why has the United States chosen on the one hand not to mention the acts of some country using naval vessel to threaten Chinese fishermen?” China went on to charge that the U.S. statement “showed total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message. It is not conducive to efforts by the parties concerned to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region at large. The Chinese side expresses strong dissatisfaction of and firm opposition to it.” These views were conveyed by the Chinese government a day earlier when it summoned U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, Robert Wang, to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing,


What Next?

The pressure on China to be less adamant about its claims in the Spratly Islands is mounting. China does have an obligation under international law to try to settle disputes peacefully, but since that applies to all parties, China is unlikely to back down without some equivalent gesture from other claimants. In the Spratly Islands, China will continue to avoid combat operations because a number of larger interests would be adversely affected for no significant gain. But it will retaliate with military force if attacked. A minor skirmish with loss of life cannot be ruled out. Trying to keep the dispute at a low level, China has so far avoided drawing any baselines around the Spratly Islands. In the Paracel Islands, which China has controlled fully since 1974, the situation is very different. For China, this dispute is definitively over and settled. China has drawn baselines around the Paracel Islands. Since Vietnam is the only other recognized claimant to the Paracels, China feels that it has a very strong hand, much stronger than in the sprawling and dispersed Spratly Islands where some 40 islands, rocks and reefs are occupied by three other states – and one is occupied by Taiwan.