MANILA — Many adventurers and historians are still in the hunt of pinning down the exact location of the lost city of Atlantis but all the more that they would be surprised to find a never-heard existence of a Chinese city in the middle of a vast body of disputed water in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea.
It’s barely nine years old but it has already gained a reputation as the world’s oddest but the world’s largest city in terms of area but was kept hush-hush by Mainland China until this very moment.
A new report by the United States Naval War College pulls together what is known about Sansha City, founded by China in 2012 and covers some 800,000 square miles of the South China Sea within the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ that Beijing claims for itself.
Considering this gigantic area, this makes Sansha City 1,700 times the size of New York City, and although most of the city is salt water, it includes the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam and Taiwan claim, and the Spratly Islands, which are severally claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The City Hall is situated on Woody Island, one of the Paracels. Once a remote outpost, Woody Island has become a bustling hub of activity, based on a 57-page, heavily footnoted report written by China expert Zachary Haver for the US War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.
“The island now boasts expanded port infrastructure, seawater desalination and sewage treatment facilities, new public housing, a functioning judicial system, 5G network coverage, a school, and regular charter flights to and from the mainland,” Haver described in his report.
Beyond Woody Island, Sansha City is “developing tourism in the Paracel Islands, attracting hundreds of newly registered companies, cultivating aquaculture, and encouraging long-term residency, the report added. There are jails and a courthouse, where two people were tried and sentenced for buying and transporting endangered wildlife in the Spratly Islands.
The obvious question is why China is going to such lengths to build a civilian infrastructure in a watery region that is effectively under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and China’s semi-militarized coast guard.
Haver’s nuanced answer is that China’s system of “military-civil fusion” is “a mechanism to govern contested areas as if they were Chinese territory,” like any mainland city. Sansha City is effectively an extension of the Chinese Communist Party.
“The expansion of the city’s party-state institutions allows municipal authorities to directly govern contested areas of the South China Sea and ensures the primacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests in local decision-making,” the China expert rationalized.
Sansha City is what China calls a prefecture-level city, which on the mainland is an administrative unit that includes a central city as well as surrounding cities, towns, villages, and rural areas. In other words, geographically large—but not this large.
The “normalized administrative control” exercised by Sansha City is strongest in the Paracels, but “elements of this system also exist in the Spratly Islands and show signs of expanding,” writes Haver, who is a fellow at the Center for Advanced China Research, lived in China for three years, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
In conclusion, he points out that Sansha City—just nine years old—is evidence of China’s determination to “settle in for a long stay.”
“In entrusting these responsibilities to the municipal party-state and supporting the city’s development, Beijing has revealed that its ambitions extend beyond dominating the South China Sea via CCG [Chinese Coast Guard] and PLA Navy operations. Through Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control, China is gradually transforming contested areas of the South China Sea into de facto Chinese territory,” he closes.