On April 18, China’s State Council announced its decision to establish two new districts in Sansha City, a prefecture-level city (地级市) headquartered on Woody Island which governs the bulk of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Some observers may dismiss the creation of these districts as a symbolic but ultimately inconsequential demonstration of Beijing’s resolve. A closer look at the development and role of administrative institutions in Sansha City indicates otherwise. This structural adjustment will improve China’s administrative control over the South China Sea and could introduce new policymaking dynamics.

The State Council established Sansha City as a prefecture-level city belonging to Hainan province in July 2012. The city’s jurisdiction supposedly encompasses over 280 islands, shoals, reefs, and other features along with their surrounding sea areas, amounting to nearly 800,000 square miles of sea and land area. This includes much of China’s claims within its nine-dash line, including the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Zhongsha Islands (中沙群岛), generally understood to refer to Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank.

Since 2012, Woody Island and Sansha City more broadly have rapidly developed. Over the past eight years, the city has opened a school, attracted considerable corporate investment, constructed new infrastructure such as port facilities and seawater desalination plants, established a booming tourism industry, diversified its economy, improved logistics and telecommunications, built permanent housing facilities, and promoted normalized residency. Woody Island and other features under Sansha City’s jurisdiction have hosted weapons systems and city entities have coordinated the development and operations of maritime militia forces. The various island features of Sansha City are now bristling with increasingly advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. The establishment of Sansha City’s new districts, Xisha (Paracel) District (西沙区) and Nansha (Spratly) District (南沙区), continues the trajectory of the city’s development.

In the Chinese system, prefecture-level cities typically contain subordinate districts and counties with their own governments. Therefore, when the State Council established two new districts in Sansha City, it also created two new district governments. These two new governments are the Xisha District People’s Government (西沙区人民政府), headquartered on Woody Island, and the Nansha District People’s Government (南沙区人民政府), headquartered on Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁). In addition to holding jurisdiction over the Paracel Islands, the government of Xisha District will also manage the Zhongsha Islands, while the government of Nansha District will administer the Spratly Islands. Given that China operates under a party-state system, corresponding district party committees will join the new district governments.

The creation of the Xisha and Nansha Districts expands China’s administrative capacity in the South China Sea. The Chinese party-state has long sought to cement effective governance over claimed territory in the South China Sea. China first set up a party committee and government office on Woody Island in March 1959. These entities held roughly the same jurisdiction as the modern Sansha City. In late 2008, the party committee and government office created 18 new administrative departments (行政职能部门) and 20 new public institutions (事业单位). When Sansha City came into being in July 2012, new municipal bodies replaced the older party and government entities. Since 2012, Sansha City has steadily introduced new forms of local governance, including at least four working committees (工委) and management committees (管委会) as well as ten neighborhood resident committees (社区居民委员会). The establishment of Sansha City’s Xisha and Nansha Districts therefore comes as the latest step in a long-term project to expand Chinese party-state governance into the South China Sea.

The party-state institutions of Sansha City support China’s presence in the South China Sea through executing important policymaking and coordination functions. Whether formulating local industrial and tax policies, planning infrastructure projects, nurturing the city’s tourism industry, supporting paramilitary activity, commissioning new ships, synthesizing civilian and military resources, improving living conditions, producing propaganda, or installing new telecommunications capabilities, Sansha’s leaders have for eight years busied themselves with transforming Woody Island and other features into hubs of Chinese activity in the South China Sea. The Xisha and Nansha Districts will provide the leadership, personnel, and institutional resources necessary for a greater degree of localized policy formulation and implementation, thereby boosting Sansha City’s overall administrative capacity.

The addition of two new districts in Sansha City could also introduce new policymaking dynamics in the South China Sea. Given that the Xisha and Nansha Districts will administer geographically and politically distinct regions, these two entities could end up pursuing different interests. The Xisha District People’s Government will administer a comparatively stable area of the South China Sea in which China already enjoys a mature civilian presence. The Nansha District People’s Government, on the other hand, will govern a hotly contested region in which military, law enforcement, and maritime militia actors abound. As such, Xisha and Nansha District leaders will likely implement policies tailored to the particular characteristics of their jurisdictions. For example, the new authorities in Nansha District may push to open the Spratly Islands to Chinese tourism, a provocative gambit to develop the local economy, civilianize China’s presence in the Spratly Islands, and demonstrate sovereignty. Whether or to what degree these two districts pursue competing interests will depend on their relative autonomy vis-à-vis the municipal authorities in Sansha City. Since China’s behavior in the South China Sea is the product of interactions between various central and local actors, changing relationships between the administrative levels of Sansha City warrant close attention.

The quiet and incremental nature of China’s enlarging administrative presence in the South China Sea belies its very real consequences for other claimants. The new districts will provide Sansha City additional policy formulation and implementation resources and could empower leaders to pursue more localized policies. Situated on the front lines of the South China Sea disputes, Sansha City and its associated administrative entities are responsible for advancing Beijing’s territorial interests on a day-to-day basis. Upgrades to the city’s administrative capacity therefore bolster China’s overall position in the turbulent waters of the South China Sea.

About Zachary Haver

Zachary Haver is a China analyst at SOS International LLC. He specializes in the South China Sea, maritime infrastructure, and Chinese investment. The views expressed here are his own. Find him on Twitter at @zacharyhaver.