Why China is founding a new city on a coral reef

The new city of Sansha lies on tiny coral reefs in the Paracel Islands, one of the many disputed specks of land in the South China Sea. 

In this photo taken on Saturday, July 21, Chinese people chat in front of an administration office building for the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha islands on Yongxing Island, the government seat of Sansha City off south China's Hainan province. China has rolled out the red carpet for its newest city, which is on a small, remote island in the South China Sea that is also claimed by Vietnam.

Official Chinese media just announced the founding of a city that spans a series of tiny coral reefs, some often submerged. Chinese leaders can’t quite replicate the glass towers of Shanghai or the city walls of Beijing there. But that’s not the point.

China’s establishment of Sansha City in the disputed, resource-rich South China Sea shows the nation’s commitment to edge out five other claimants to most or all of the ocean area in a tense sovereignty dispute and keep the United States at bay – all without using military force.

Its city springs from the coral at a tense juncture in the stubborn 30-year-old sovereignty dispute over the sea as oil drilling takes off and China and the Philippines warily back away from this April’s standoff at Scarborough Shoal near Luzon Island.

The other claimant governments have little choice but to accept the not-so-hidden meaning behind Sansha. The city sits on Yongxing, one of the disputed Paracel Islands. China says the city government will oversee administration of the land and water of three archipelagos within the 200-some contested atolls in the wider South China Sea. That means: Oher countries, keep out. 

The city approved by Beijing in June has a mayor and a municipal people’s congress, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a report on Tuesday. Yongxing already supports a Chinese military and civilian airport. A garrison under the People’s Liberation Army will police the new city.

But China christened the city not to start a fight, just to let the other countries know to respect its claims to the ocean packed with fish, privy to half the world’s commercial shipping traffic and home to vast undersea oil reserves. China looks to those resources as its economy grows and its 1.35 billion people get wealthier.

“Beijing’s strategy is to do more, say less,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of e-telligence, a Taipei-based political risk consultancy. “But it wants to send a number of messages. It wants to build the city to assert that it holds the rights to those islands.”

Other claimant countries, already miffed that Beijing declined to sign a South China Sea code of conduct at the East Asia Summit in Cambodia earlier this month, may follow China’s lead by raising their own actual presence in the 3.5 million square-kilometer (1.4 million square-mile) sea area.

Taiwan, for example, is studying plans to add military in the Dongsha Islands, which are not disputed but put the often quiet claimant closer to the fire. The more stuff at sea, the higher the risk of a hostile collision between claimants.

China’s rivals to sovereignty over the sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Vietnam and China were party to the two worst clashes to date, in 1976 and 1988.

China’s new city also elbows aside US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has irked China this month by urging it to get along better with smaller claimants. The United States, though on the other side of the world, uses the sea for ship traffic and doesn’t want China, the world’s rising superpower, to get too tight a grip. China, naturally, wants its rival superpower out of the region.

Sansha’s newly appointed Mayor Xiao Jie calls his mission “a challenge and test for me.” That would be putting it mildly.

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