China has upped the ante amid rising tensions in the South China Sea by declaring two new administrative districts for the contested region and releasing a new map naming all the islands and reefs it claims.
The provocative moves come as Beijing faces diplomatic pushback from some of its Southeast Asian neighbors against its sweeping assertion of sovereignty across the resource-rich sea.
It also takes place as the China’s Coast Guard and maritime militia pressure other claimants, even as they grapple with the global coronavirus pandemic. Most recently, China has deployed a survey vessel and escort ships near an oil field off the coast of Malaysia.
China’s announcement on the administrative measures came this weekend. The State Council, China’s top administrative body, approved the creation of two new municipal districts: Nansha District, which is based at Fiery Cross Reef, an artificial island built by China that it says will oversee all of the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters; and Xisha District, based on Woody Island, which will oversee the Paracel Islands.
It follows the July 2012 declaration of Sansha City on Woody Island as China’s administrative center for the region. The two new districts cover a vast but largely uninhabited area. They are incorporated under Sansha, which itself has only 1,800 permanent residents.
China’s Global Television Network on Saturday described Sansha as a prefecture-level city that compromises only 20 square kilometers of land area but oversees “nearly two million square kilometers.”
The declaration comes despite unresolved territorial disputes across that area, and efforts by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to forge a binding code of conduct.
Vietnam, which claims both the Paracels and the Spratlys, immediately condemned the announcement of the two new districts by China, calling it a serious violation of its sovereignty.
Pooja Bhatt, author of Nine-Dash Line: Deciphering the South China Sea Conundrum, said China’s move was intended to cement its territorial claims, which were undermined by a Permanent Court of Arbitration verdict from 2016. That verdict found that most of the land features it occupies in the South China Sea were actually rocks originally, due to lack of human habitation and economic activity. By inhabiting them now, China in time seeks to have these features regarded as islands entitled to territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, she said.
“Second, having administrative units can justify the presence of military and defense installations for protection purposes,” Bhatt said. “Furthermore the establishment of these cities increases the area of operation over the vast maritime domain in the South China Sea.”
China has constructed airstrips and military infrastructure at a number of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea in recent years, including at Fiery Cross Reef, where commercial satellite imagery provider ImageSat International recently spotted military aircraft.
On April 6, the U.S. State Department had mentioned the landing of military aircraft at Fiery Cross. In that statement, the U.S. accused China of exploiting nations’ distraction over COVID-19 to expand its “unlawful claims” in the South China Sea.
Also on the weekend, in a move calculated to demonstrate Chinese jurisdiction of the new districts, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Natural Resources released a new map naming each feature in the South China Sea it claims – an exhaustive list that was last updated in 1983.
The move by China to assert jurisdiction comes after a dueling series of diplomatic notes by China and rival claimants that were submitted to the United Nations. Malaysia’s initial submission claiming a part of the seabed in December sparked a protest from China, which in turn sparked further protests against China’s claim from the Philippines and Vietnam.
China issued its latest statement on Friday, and adopted a notably more aggressive tone towards Vietnam.
“China always opposes the invasion and illegal occupation by Viet Nam of some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao, and the activities infringing upon China’s rights and interests in the waters under China’s jurisdiction,” its submission to the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) read. Nansha Qundao refers to the Spratly Islands.
“China resolutely demands that Viet Nam withdraw all the crews and facilities from the islands and reefs it has invaded and illegally occupied,” the note added.
Bhatt believes the continental shelf dispute and China’s new districts will figure prominently in the year’s discussions between China and ASEAN. Vietnam is currently protesting Chinese actions the loudest and may be best-placed to press the issue further as the current chair of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, she said.