Woody Island is seen by many analysts as a blueprint for upgrades at China’s bases in the Spratly Islands. Land reclamation and construction of facilities seen in the Paracels, and especially on Woody Island, have in many cases been repeated in the Spratlys. Although many analyses focus on China’s military build-up on Woody Island, it is also important to explore non-military developments. China has a comprehensive plan to develop a prefectural-level government with jurisdiction over the Paracels, the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, and Macclesfield Bank, with its base on Woody Island. My research published in China Perspectives illustrates the coordinated development of this initiative between China’s various agencies.  China has especially prioritized the administration of local government in the South China Sea since 2012, as a means of establishing a hub for maritime law enforcement, the maritime militia, and surveillance and information networks.

Building Sansha City

Non-military measures, such as coast guards or resource exploitation, are at the front line of maritime disputes in Asia and are used to alter the status-quo in the region. By exerting influence in the region over affairs traditionally deemed domestic, a country can normalize its jurisdiction over the area. Although China is not alone in using non-military measures to enhance its claims, its efforts are greater than its neighbors’ in both scale and impact. In addition to normalizing jurisdiction, non-military measures are often closely related to military measures. Many recent incidents, including the encounter with the USS Impeccable in 2009, the development of the Scarborough Shoal conflict in 2012, and the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling platform in 2014, show China coordinating its efforts between military, law enforcement, and maritime militia to achieve its goals.

One of the non-military developments which receives less attention, however, is the establishment of Sansha City. China officially established Sansha, based on Woody Island and included in the greater Hainan Province, on July 17, 2012. Sansha administers China’s claims throughout the South China Sea. The domestic power delegated to the city by Beijing seems intended to solidify political control over the disputed islands and other features.

President Xi Jinping himself has made comments on the importance and future direction of Sansha City, underscoring its significance. Visiting Hainan in April 2013, Xi directed the province to develop a well-functioning government in Sansha to fulfill the Party’s four aims in the South China Sea: protection of rights, protection of stability, preservation of the maritime environment, and development. To accomplish these goals, Sansha’s government is pursuing three specific activities: coordination of law enforcement, development of surveillance and information-gathering networks, and improving the living conditions of residents on the islands.

First, on maritime law enforcement activities, the Sansha government has pushed what it has termed ”Military-Police-Civilian coordination” and set up a Military-Police-Civilian Coordination Center to pursue a range of measures supporting maritime law enforcement, including information sharing, joint maritime law enforcement plans, and maritime militia troops. Other projects will set up a residential committee office and cultural center, a maritime militia post, a war-time command center, and typhoon shelters.

Sansha has reinforced its claim to law enforcement jurisdiction in the Paracels by carrying out patrols and exercises, including a military-police-civilian maritime general law enforcement exercise. The exercise included trainings for inspection of foreign ships and search and rescue. The city has also set up a General Law Enforcement Bureau which serves to integrate law enforcement activities. When the maritime militia discovers foreign fishing vessels engaged in fishing deemed “illegal,” such as violating the seasonal Chinese fishing moratorium, it reports it to Sansha’s garrison command. The garrison command then identifies the ships’ locations and notifies Chinese law enforcement to apprehend them.

Hainan and Sansha have also been cooperating to build surveillance and information networks in the South China Sea. The surveillance networks will utilize equipment positioned on Chinese-occupied features in the Paracels and Spratlys to ensure maritime domain awareness in the surrounding seas and support any military operations in the area. Hainan Military District has constructed dozens of militia outposts and established a reconnaissance-information network. The militia outposts are information-intensive facilities equipped with radar, vessel identification systems, video monitoring, and high-powered telescopes. The intelligence gathered is transmitted to the Military-Police-Civilian Coordination Center in Sansha, which then directs orders to law enforcement agencies. Reports that over 50,000 Chinese fishing boats carry the Beidou satellite system, often thanks to subsidies from the Chinese government, indicate the likelihood of coordination between authorities and the fishing fleets for information-gathering.

And finally, Sansha City has striven to enhance the standard of living for residents of the island. Recent construction includes a hospital, a school for children of military personnel, a water purification plant, and various recreational facilities. By improving living conditions and moving the families of soldiers to the island, the city can sustain a civilian population, which improves China’s claim to effective control over the islands. Regular transport between the island and the mainland for civilians and even pleasure cruises around the Paracels for carefully-vetted tourists are a part of this effort.


China’s behavior in the Paracels is important to analyze because of its role as a blueprint for developments in the Spratlys. If the comparison holds true, China’s plan in the Spratlys can be expected to be a comprehensive one that aims for the creation of a full-fledged political, economic, social, and military entity. In such a scenario, local government is an important actor, although coordination will be critical and Beijing always has the final word. The mayor of Sansha, Xiao Jie, recently told the Hainan Daily of plans to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal. The revelation sparked an outcry from the international community over the perception of creeping Chinese construction. A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs the next week disavowed the mayor’s remarks and denied the existence of such plans.

Developments in the South China Sea are also valuable for their relevance to the East China Sea, where China has maritime disputes with Japan. China has increasingly attempted to demonstrate its control over the Senkaku Islands by dispatching coast guard vessels and sending them through waters that Japan claims as its contiguous zone or even territorial seas. So far, China has not shown any inclination to set up an administrative body covering the Senkakus. To be sure, the situations in the South and East China Seas are different in many respects. Most importantly, the Senkakus are under the administrative control of Japan. But if, in the future, China creates an administrative body with jurisdiction over the Senkaku Islands, it will be a sure sign that China is planning an added level of non-military coercion.

About Shinji Yamaguchi

Shinji Yamaguchi is a senior research fellow in the Regional Studies Department of the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), part of the Japanese Ministry of Defense, located in Tokyo. He specializes in Chinese politics, China’s security policy, and contemporary Chinese history. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Keio University.