Beijing on Tuesday established a new administrative city in the South China Sea where it also plans to station a military garrison to defend its claims on the disputed waters, drawing protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Chinese flag was raised and the national anthem played at a ceremony to mark the creation of the new 1,000-resident Sansha city on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam.
Sansha, the new prefecture-level municipality under Hainan province, will administer the Paracel archipelago as well as the nearby Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The move strengthens Beijing’s foothold in the resource-rich South China Sea, portions of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, and raises tensions in the region where experts have warned of the possibility of armed conflicts erupting.
Luo Baoyu, the Hainan secretary for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said at the ceremony that Sansha, a settlement supplied with food and water by ship, will help China assert its control over the sea and promote its economic interests there.
"The provincial government will be devoted to turning the city into an important base to safeguard China's sovereignty and serve marine resource development," he said, Xinhua reported.
Sansha will also host troops as part of a new military garrison, according to China’s Central Military Command Friday, escalating territorial spats with Vietnam and the Philippines.
The garrison command will be responsible for managing the city's national defense, mobilizing military reserves, and carrying out military operations, China’s state media reported.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that the plan for the garrison "violates international law, seriously violates Vietnam’s sovereignty... and is invalid.”
He said China must revoke its "wrongdoings" and urged "friendly and cooperative" relations in order to "maintain peace and stability" in the region.
Vietnam has faced off with China over Beijing’s detention of Vietnamese fishermen and its opening of oil and gas lots to international bidders in the disputed waters.
In the Philippines, the department of foreign affairs summoned China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing on Tuesday to protest against the garrison announcement.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines had expressed “grave concern” and “strong protest” over China’s actions in the Paracels, the Manila Standard newspaper reported.
“We hope that China, as a responsible country, will exercise self-restraint on the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region,” he said.
The Philippines became embroiled in a standoff with China at the Scarborough Shoal earlier this year, with both sides sending ships to the area after Manila accused Beijing of poaching in its exclusive economic zone.
On Monday, Philippine president Benigno Aquino said in an annual state of the nation address to parliament that the country would be upgrading its military capabilities in the South China Sea.
"If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, would you allow that?" he said.
China’s actions have also drawn reactions from the U.S., where senior senator John McCain on Tuesday called the planned garrison in Sansha “unnecessarily provocative” and urged a multilateral solution to the overlapping claims in the waters.
China’s expansion of Sansha comes as long-simmering tensions over the South China Sea disputes reached “new heights,” according to a new report by the International Crisis Group released Wednesday.
The think tank warned that tensions have grown particularly explosive since divisions over the territorial claims prompted the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to postpone for the first time in 45 years its customary joint statement at the conclusion of its annual ministerial talks two weeks ago.
“As long as ASEAN fails to produce a cohesive South China Sea policy, a binding set of rules on the handling of disputed claims cannot be enforced,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, the International Crisis Group’s acting Asia director.
“Without a consensus on resolution mechanisms, tensions in the South China Sea can easily spill over into armed conflict,” he said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.