China has the world’s largest city in the South China Sea

China's Shansha City right in the middle of South China Sea/West Philippine Sea | Juan Manila


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.

China's Shansha City right in the middle of South China Sea/West Philippine Sea
Aerial view of China’s Sansha City right in the middle of South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.

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.

China’s pronouncement is very alarming—Sobejana

BRP-Jose Rizal FF-150

“China’s pronouncement that their coast guard can fire on people intruding on their territory is very alarming,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief, says during an interview with state-run PTV (People’s Television).

The Armed Forces of the Philippines chief says the navy would be increasing its visibility in the West Philippine Sea in response to a new Chinese law that allows its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels. “Our countrymen go to the disputed area not to wage war but to make a living,” he said in Filipino.

“What we will do, as part of our mandate to secure the people, is to increase [our] visibility through the deployment of naval assets,” Sobejana assures in a mix of Filipino and English. He clarifies “that our navy presence there is not to wage war against China but to secure our own people.”

Beijing has long refused to acknowledge an arbitral ruling that junked its claims over the resource-rich West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines earlier filed a diplomatic protest against China’s coast guard law, which Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr called “a verbal threat of war.”

Locsin promised to take steps beyond the protest if an incident with China’s coast guard occurs. Amid uproar against the new law, meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Manila denies any threat of war and insists that its coast guard law does not “specifically target any certain country.”

Locsin reiterates in strong terms the Philippines’ opposition to China’s new law and its assertion of ownership of the West Philippine Sea. 

“We are not gonna study that law to find a way around it like mice—or collaborators,” Locsin tweets. 

Featured image: BRP Jose Rizal FF-150 is the Philippine Navy’s s multi-purpose frigate capable of carrying out anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine and electronic warfare missions. It was commissioned in July 2020.

Freedom of navigation operations, reassuring—Taiwan president

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS Theodore Roosevelt

Speaking in Taipei, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said US ships and aircraft carrying out a “freedom of navigation operations is reassuring. This demonstrates the clear U.S. attitude towards challenges to the security status quo in the Indo-Pacific region.” 

“We are committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea that all nations enjoy under international law,” Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, said in a statement.

According to Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “The US has been committed to the idea of freedom of the seas and nowhere is that under greater threat than in the South China Sea.”

A few days after a United States warship sailed near Chinese-controlled islands in the disputed South China Sea, two US carrier groups conduct joint exercises in the disputed waters in the South China Sea Tuesday—the USS Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group,  two US supercarriers of the Nimitz class. 

Beijing criticizes the U.S. “show of force” as not conducive to regional peace and stability.

The USS capabilities

  • USS Nimitz (CVN-68) is a supercarrier of the United States Navy, and the lead ship of her class. One of the largest warships in the world, she was laid down, launched, and commissioned as CVAN-68, “aircraft carrier, attack, nuclear powered”, but she was later redesignated as CVN-68, “aircraft carrier, multi-mission, nuclear-powered”, on 30 June 1975, as part of a fleet-wide realignment that year.
  • USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is the fourth Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered, aircraft carrier in the United States Navy. She is named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States and a proponent of naval power.
  • USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer currently in the service of the United States Navy. She is part of the Destroyer Squadron 15 within the Seventh Fleet, and has her homeport at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Japan.

The multitude of exercises of both the supercarrier groups is “aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities,” the US Navy said. The event also marks the first dual-carrier operations in the busy waterway since July 2020.

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS Nimitz
Nimitz is part of Carrier Strike Group Eleven (CSG-11) with Carrier Air Wing Seventeen (CVW-17) embarked, with Nimitz as the flagship of the strike group and the home of the commander of Destroyer Squadron 23. (Photo by the US Navy)

However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “China will continue to take necessary measures to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security and work with countries in the region to firmly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Earlier, China condemned the sailing of the destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands in what the United States calls freedom of navigation operation—the first such mission by the US Navy since President Joe Biden took office.

Committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea | USS John Mc Caine
USS John S. McCain patrolling the South China Sea. (Photo by the US Navy)

Last month, the US military said Chinese military flights over the South China Sea fit a pattern of destabilizing and aggressive behavior but posed no threat to a US Navy aircraft carrier strike group in the region.

The United States has contested China’s extensive territorial claims in the region, accusing it of militarizing the South China Sea and trying to intimidate neighbors such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, who have claims that overlap with China’s in the resource-rich area.

China has been infuriated by repeated US sailings near the islands it occupies and controls in the South China Sea. China says it has irrefutable sovereignty and has accused the United States of deliberately stoking tension.

China has also been angered by US warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, including one last week, also the first such operation under the Biden administration.

Featured image:  The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Pacific Ocean 25 January 2020 on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

U.S. stands firm with Asian allies vs expansionist China

US stands firm with Asian allies | US President Joseph Biden

Following a threat from China that recognizing independence of Taiwan would mean war, United States president Joseph Biden affirmed the United States government’s commitment to Taipei. With this he sent a clear warning to Beijing against any expansionist intentions in East and Southeast Asia.

Three days into the Biden administration, State Department spokesman Ned Price warned China about menacing Taiwan after it repeatedly sent more than a dozen military fighters and bombers through the island’s air defense zone.

“We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity security and values in the Indo-Pacific region—and that includes deepening our ties with Democratic Taiwan,” Price said in a statement.

“Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid,” he added. 


Any attack would mean commensurate retaliation

This came after Beijing reportedly passed a new coast guard law allowing its military forces to attack foreign vessels that will encroach into its claimed territories and jeopardize its patrimonial integrity. That move by the Chinese government prompted Philippine officials to oppose the said law and tag it as a “threat of war.”

In reaction, U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken stressed that “any attack” on U.S. allies in Asia would mean a commensurate retaliation from American forces maintaining ‘freedom of navigation’ in disputed waters and in obligation of a mutual defense treaty forged between Manila and Washington.


U.S. rejects China’s territorial claims with allies

Washington has long sided with allies such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in rejecting disputed Chinese territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

In multiple calls and statements, Biden and his top security officials underscored support for its Asian allies—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines—to signal Washington’s rejection of China’s territorial claims in disputed areas in the South China Sea (SCS) and the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

To underscore the unchanged US stance in Asia, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ mission in the South China Sea, sailing close to waters that China claims to underscore Washington’s rejection of those claims. 

The Trump administration through then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared last July that most of Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea were “completely unlawful.”


U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers contested islands

Biden had earlier told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that his administration is committed to defending Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed both by Japan and China. The Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands.

That stance was echoed by US defense secretary Lloyd Austin, who told Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi that the contested islands were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. He affirmed that the United States “remains opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” according to a Pentagon statement on the call. In his first overseas contacts after taking office, Austin included not only Japan but also counterparts in Australia, South Korea and India.


U.S.-India defense cooperation expanded as China poses military threat

Over the past three years, Washington has expanded defense cooperation with India, which sees China posing a military threat both on its northern border and in the seas to the south.

In a call with Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh, Austin observed that the two countries’ defense partnership “is built upon shared values and a common interest in ensuring the Indo-Pacific region remains free and open,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stated.

A similar China-directed refrain echoed through Austin’s call with Australian defense minister Linda Reynolds on Tuesday. Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, founded on existing international law and norms in a region free of malign behavior.”

In addition, even as his initial focus for the US Defense Department is battling the coronavirus, Austin is expected to make Asia his first destination on an international trip.

US challenges China’s claims over the West Philipine Sea anew as warship sails by Spratly Islands

The year 2020 saw an increased activity in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), particularly with the United States deploying its maritime assets to showcase support for Asian countries against China’s ‘illegal’ claiming of islands in the disputed waters, and it appears far from over as an American warship recently sailed through it.

The US Seventh fleet said in a statement that the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands.”

Apart from addressing criticisms towards China, the said move by the US also aimed to send a message to Taiwan and Vietnam for requiring “either permission or advance notification” for ‘innocent passage’ through the strategic waterways.

The US said that this is against the international law stated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions,” it said.

The US Pacific Fleet Commander added in a statement that the “unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the [West Philippine Sea] pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade, and unimpeded commerce.”

The Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam have overlapping claims in the WPS. The Philippines’ ownership was further strengthened when the country won an arbitral ruling in 2016 against China but Beijing continues to ignore it.

With the American warship sailing by the contested waterways, the US said that it demonstrated that “innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.”

The US Pacific Fleet previously confirmed on its Twitter account that the USS John S. McCain also participated in drills conducted by the French Navy in the Philippine Sea.

Beijing strengthens presence in West Philippine Sea with upgraded naval bases

New satellite images reveal positive development in China’s building of a new dry dock in Hainan Island in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), with reports claiming it is large enough to carry aircraft like Beijing’s new Type-003 super carrier which is owned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Reports say that the construction of the dock started in 2016 and is now nearing completion. The dock’s real purpose remains unclear but it would be beneficial in China’s assertion of presence in the disputed strategic waterways.

In a report published on Naval News, the media outlet said that China’s about-to-be-completed new dry dock “indicates that aircraft carriers will be permanently based on the island.”

“China is building a fleet of aircraft carriers and the largest to date, the Type-003, is currently under construction in Shanghai. The Type-003 will be significantly larger than the first two carriers which were based on the Russian Kuznetsov Class design,” Naval News added.

It further noted that the new facilities will be in addition to China’s existing naval bases on the said island which carry assets like nuclear and conventional submarines, and a large surface fleet.

“So the new facilities are part of a shift toward the [West Philippine Sea]. The PLAN’s Southern Fleet increasingly seems to get the best vessels. With an aircraft carrier (or two) permanently stationed there China’s military grip in the [West Philippine Sea] will only get stronger,” it added.

Reports on China’s latest activities in the WPS came amid the global call for a “free Indo-Pacific region” in the quest of various nations to ease tensions in the disputed waters.

PH, Japan bolster cooperation over West Philippine Sea

Amid the relentless militarization and island-building of Beijing in disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), President Rodrigo Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently cemented their commitment to cooperate over issues in the strategic waterways, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

In a 20-minute telephone conversation, Suga expressed interest in further developing strategic partnership between Japan and the Philippines toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The Japanese prime minister expressed his support for Duterte’s push to strengthen economic growth through infrastructure projects.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry detailed that the two Asian leaders also affirmed to work together in addressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan adds to the list of countries that have extended support for the Philippines over the WPS dispute, along with the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, as well as European Union countries France and Germany.

Even during the global crisis brought about by the pandemic, Beijing maintained its aggressive activities in the WPS which other nations slammed and criticized.

COVID-19 vaccines offered by China to PH in ‘good faith’

Addressing fears that Beijing might be using its COVID-19 vaccine as leverage to the Philippines, Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said that the Chinese are doing this “to win the hearts and minds of people.”

“In reality, the Chinese have offered this as part of their campaign to improve China’s standing in the world,” the diplomat said, noting that China making the Philippines as one of its priority countries in the distribution of the vaccines is nothing but an act of good faith.

Sta. Romana referred to a July survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations which revealed that most Filipinos did not trust China, and had greater trust towards the United States and Australia.

“As you know, the ratings of China — for example, in the Philippines — when it comes to trustworthiness is quite low,” he said, citing that Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is part of its “pledge” to “make it a global public good.”

The envoy’s statement came in response to queries about a paper published by the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore saying that it’s unlikely for China’s diplomacy to be “unconditional.”

“Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the [West Philippine Sea],” researchers Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio wrote.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing maintained its aggressive activities over Philippine-claimed territories in the West Philippine Sea, despite the arbitral ruling in 2016 that legally declares parts of the strategic waterways as under the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

Echoing Sta. Romana, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque assured the public that the Philippines won’t give in to China in case the vaccine will be used at a disadvantage to the country, noting that the Philippines has an independent foreign policy.

“The president in fact shares many values with the leadership of China, including a personal friendship with President Xi,” he said. “So I think the possibility of using the vaccine as pressure as far as the Philippines is concerned is almost nil.”

PH should uphold further arbitral win vs China over West Philippine Sea

The government and the country’s “best and brightest legal warriors” should stand up and fight to free the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from foreign entities and push for a better enforcement of the arbitral win against China to ensure Beijing’s compliance, retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said.

Carpio emphasized that in the “historic battle” to secure and protect the EEZ, the “great equalizer is the rule of law.

“We must rely on the most powerful weapon invented by man in the settlement of disputes among states — a weapon that can immobilize armies, neutralize aircraft carriers, render irrelevant nuclear bombs, and level the battlefield between small nations and superpowers,” the ex-magistrate stressed.

He added that filing the arbitration case against China was one of the greatest achievements of former President Benigno Aquino III.

If the Memorandum of Agreement and Terms of Reference with China will push through, then it will be one of the greatest feats for President Rodrigo Duterte, as this will enforce more the arbitral win of the country and will bring the “much-needed peace and stability in the region.”

The former Supreme Court official previously said that the MOU and the TOR which the Philippines and China signed in November 2018 for joint oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea can be considered as “some light at the end of the tunnel.”

A bilateral meeting to strengthen the partnership agreement was supposed to be done in Manila this year but was canceled due to COVID-19. A new date is yet to be finalized.

Carpio said that the said oil exploration agreement which provides a 60-40 sharing formula in favor of the Philippines is “sufficient to preserve our sovereign rights in the WPS.”

“As long as the structure in the MOU and TOR is not changed, I can vouch to the Filipino people that Philippine sovereign rights in the WPS are preserved,” he added.

Beijing confident that ASEAN, China can protect peace in West Philippine Sea

In a one-day virtual meeting with defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, Beijing emphasized that China and its Southeast Asian neighbors can safeguard peace and stability in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

China issued the statement at the conclusion of talks on the code of conduct in the WPS with the ten members of the ASEAN, amid the rising tensions between China and the United States.

The online discussion centered on reaffirming the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation and flight in the ASEAN region.

In the group’s first joint declaration since 2013, the ministers agreed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes, without coercion, in accordance with international law.”

The ministers also emphasized that the disputes in the WPS can be effectively resolved in the spirit of friendship, goodwill in cooperation, and in accordance with the international law.”

Among the participants in the meeting which Vietnam hosted were acting US Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, and representative ministers of Australia, India, and Russia.

The Japanese Defense Ministry underscored the importance of following the rule of law in ensuring free and open seas, noting that in the WPS, what can be seen are actions that increase tensions “such as ballistic missile launches and further militarization of the terrain.”

“We strongly oppose any unilateral change of the status quo by force or established facts that could threaten the stability of the region and we share our concern with ASEAN over this grave situation,” it said.

Despite agreeing in maintaining peace in the region, China has been relentlessly building artificial islands and military bases in the disputed areas of the WPS, including territories that are legally declared as owned by the Philippines.