On April 18, China’s State Council announced its approval of setting up two new municipal districts as dependencies of the southernmost Sansha city, in Hainan province. The new “Xisha District” and “Nansha District” cover the South China Sea.
China’s institutions on the Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef) will be in charge of the administration of the islands, reefs, and sea areas of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands). The Fiery Cross Reef, occupied by China, used to be an underwater reef. The Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have historical claims to it, but it was converted into an artificial island following massive land reclamation work undertaken by China. The reef was virtually untouched by man-made structures until March 2014, when it was transformed into an artificial island in the span of a year by March 2015. (RELATED ARTICLE: Common Concerns, Common Mission: Japan, U.S. Defend Western Pacific vs China Aggression)
Woody Island (Yongxing Island), although also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, will be in charge of China’s administration of the islands, reef, and sea areas of the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands). (RELATED ARTICLE: U.S. Pacific Command Warns PRC Now Controls South China Sea)
China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Natural Resources has released the longitudes, latitudes, and standardized names of 25 islands and reefs and 55 undersea geographic entities in the disputed South China Sea. The listed islands include Sanzhizai, an islet north of Yongxing Island in Sansha city in South China’s Hainan province.
Taking Advantage of the Pandemic for Geographic Gains
While the world has been busy grappling with the coronavirus pandemic health crisis that has caused more than 200,000 deaths worldwide thus far, China has wasted no time, swiftly exploiting the situation in order to consolidate its control and sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea.
In addition to the announcement and naming of the new municipal districts, China officially inaugurated and put into operation two new research stations, namely the Yongshu research station and Zhubi research station. These were placed under the administration of the Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on the Spratly Islands in March 2020. These two stations, coupled with the previously established Meiji Research Center (2018), form an integrated scientific research base for China in the South China Sea.
The Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs has been established as an offshore experimental base by the CAS for the South China Sea, operated by Innovation Academy of South China Sea Ecology and Environmental Engineering, the CAS, the Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs.
A few weeks ago, Vietnam lodged an official protest with China following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, which, according to Hanoi, was rammed by a Chinese Coast Guard surveillance vessel in the waters off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In another episode, National Security Adviser of the Philippines, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., affirmed that more than 130 Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted in the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island area since the beginning of 2020.
Novel Coronavirus Averts Global Attention
It is five months since December 2019, when the outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan city, China, began to plague the entire world and humanity at large. The origins of both the 2003 SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and 2019 coronavirus virus can be traced back to China’s wet open-air markets. These are places where animals (including bats, wolf cubs, snakes, turtles, civet cats, badgers, bamboo rats, and porcupines) are bought live and then slaughtered on the spot — thereby spawning deadly viruses.
Another alarming reality that was only known in select quarters but is now getting increasing attention is the Chinese Communist Party’s running of a proactive and advanced offensive biological weapons program. (RELATED ARTICLE: Is China Producing Biological Weapons? Look At Its Capabilities and International Compliance)
Chinese researchers at Beijing’s only declared BSL-4 (Bio Safety Level 4) lab, the Wuhan Virology Institute, have been publishing papers in the scientific literature for years now, explaining exactly how they were manipulating the genetic material of various coronavirus strains. They deliberately created new viruses by combining genetic material from pre-existing viruses in ways that are extremely unlikely to happen naturally.
These practical experiments fall perfectly in line with the theoretical recommendations of the 1996 book, Chao Xian Zhan: Dui Quanqiu Hua Shidai Zhanzheng yu Zhanfa de Xiangding (Warfare Beyond Rules: Judgment of War and Methods of War in the Era of Globalization). The book is published by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Art Press and authored by two Chinese military officers, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (colonels in the People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAAF).
The central premise of this book was that China should be prepared to conduct “warfare beyond all boundaries and limitations to defend itself” and should freely decide and opt for the means of warfighting by disregarding agreements and codes of conduct developed over the past decades by the West.
The announcement of the two new municipal districts in the South China Sea China is a brazen move by China to exploit the current pandemic situation to the maximum extent possible. First, China initially concealed, and thereafter exported, the COVID-19 virus globally; second, Beijing bid to take advantage of the distraction and advance its territorial control over the disputed South China Sea.
Creation of an Alternative Narrative
By stating that each “new” district in the South China Sea will have a local government, China is strengthening its claim to sovereignty over the area. And, more significantly, it is creating an alternative narrative backed by “creating facts on the ground.”
This is palpably being done with the intent to prepare for an eventual protracted standoff. Beijing, in all likelihood, shall cling to holding the operational advantage of possessing more assets and outposts for replenishment, and interoperability, especially in the Spratly region, by projecting its air and naval power through these facilities. Through this behavior, it intends to achieve coercive outcomes territorially.
The two “new” districts are aimed at recapping China’s jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Concurrently, they are an attempt at marginalizing the apprehension of being overwhelmed by any regional mechanism that works outside the periphery of Chinese dominance and influence.
Author: Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.