Sansha City – Building A City To Claim A Sea

Sansha City – Building A City To Claim A Sea

Military-Civil Fusion in the South China Sea

tippinsights Editorial Board

China has been building the world's largest city by area – Sansha City. While that in itself is news, what is more newsworthy is where it is being built and why.

Sansha city is located in the South China Sea. It covers an area of 800,000 square miles within the "nine-dash line" that China claims is its territory. Though most of the city is just sea, it also encompasses over 280 islands, shoals, reefs, and other geographical features. Some of the islands under the city limits are the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. Matters get more interesting and ominous when taken into account that five other nations - Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei - also lay claim to these islands.

Beijing founded this enormous city, which is said to be 1700 times the size of New York, in 2012. Over the past decade, the area has been transformed into a habitable place flush with conveniences. China has gone all out to equip the site with infrastructure and services. Today, the island features an expanded port, seawater desalination, sewage treatment facilities, and 5G network coverage. Besides these, new public housing has sprung up all over the place. The island has its own functioning judiciary, school, medical facilities, and banking services. Regular charter flights connect the world's largest city to the mainland.

The Chinese government has gone out of its way to make the once inhospitable place habitable. The island now boasts a population of a few thousand. They have invested heavily to attract newly registered corporate and companies. Plans are underfoot to develop tourism in the Paracel Islands. But why go to all this trouble for tiny parcels of land and vast swathes of the sea? The answer lies in the location and what lies beneath.

The South China Sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo, is an integral part of Beijing's plans of regional domination. China claims about 90% of this water body, citing widely contested 'historical documents.' This de facto occupation of the region is a multi-pronged strategy of Beijing.

One, China wishes to dominate this vast expanse of water to control one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The South China Sea is also a rich source of fishing and has as yet unexplored natural resources. Supremacy over the SCS will also ensure China's security from its neighbors, though none are mighty enough to take on the rising power.

The other reason for developing Sansha City is China's loss to the Philippines over the disputed sea in 2016. Populating and, more importantly, administering the area over a period of time will strengthen Beijing's claim to the region in the international courts. To satisfy international laws, Beijing has declared Sansha City to be a prefecture-level city. On mainland China that would mean a central city, surrounding cities, towns, villages, and rural areas. Further, they have established two new districts in Sansha City and, consequently, two new district governments. Beijing is meticulously building a record of administering and possessing the place.

It has also come to light that the region is a gold mine of fossil fuels and other minerals. Reports suggest that 20 billion tons of oil, 5 billion cubic meters of natural gas, and about 70% of the global total combustible ice resources lie within the area. These are indeed staggering numbers. Though extracting these resources will not be cheap, China has the means and the might to exploit these deposits. At the same time, such copious supplies would drastically reduce China's dependence on oil imports and coal.

Unlike Beijing's other offshore posts, Sansha City, anchored by a tiny tropical islet, Woody Island, does not bear the look of a military outpost. Make no mistake – early-warning radar facilities and a surface-to-air missile system are located on the island, so is an operational airbase. But, its stores and business establishments lend it an air of civilian life. Except, foreigners are not permitted to enter Sansha City.

China is surreptitiously extending its claim and territory. Though many of its actions are provocative and threatening, besides its scant regard for other nations' claims, none of China's immediate neighbors in the South China Sea have the economic or military might to take on the communist giant. But, should the Philippines, Taiwan, or any other country decide to counter China, their allies like the U.S, Japan, and Australia will be drawn into the fray.

Even as the world is focused on Beijing's assertiveness towards Taiwan, it would be wise to closely watch Sansha City.

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