05 January 2021

CMSI China Maritime Report #12: “Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control”

Zachary Haver, Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative ControlChina Maritime Report 12 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, January 2021).

China established Sansha City in 2012 to administer the bulk of its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Sansha is headquartered on Woody Island. The city’s jurisdiction includes the Paracel Islands, Zhongsha Islands, and Spratly Islands and most of the waters within China’s “nine-dash line.” Sansha is responsible for exercising administrative control, implementing military-civil fusion, and carrying out the day-to-day work of rights defense, stability maintenance, environmental protection, and resource development. Since 2012, each level of the Chinese party-state system has worked to develop Sansha, improving the city’s physical infrastructure and transportation, communications, corporate ecosystem, party-state institutions, and rights defense system. In effect, the city’s development has produced a system of normalized administrative control. This system ultimately allows China to govern contested areas of the South China Sea as if they were Chinese territory.

Key Findings

  • Sansha is responsible for administering China’s maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea on a day-to-day basis from the front lines of the disputes.
  • Sansha’s physical infrastructure, transportation, communications, economy, party-state institutions, and defense capabilities form a unified system that continuously strengthens the city’s capacity to exercise administrative control over contested areas of the South China Sea.
  • The city uses civilian-administrative means, including maritime law enforcement and maritime militia operations, rather than military force to advance China’s position in the South China Sea disputes.
  • The development of Sansha is gradually civilianizing and institutionalizing China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, providing a mechanism to govern contested areas as if they were Chinese territory.
  • The city’s development aligns closely with China’s broader strategy in the South China Sea, which aims to consolidate China’s claims while deterring other states from strengthening their own claims. This strategy relies on China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia operations backed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
  • Military-civil fusion is the guiding principle of the city’s development, which ensures that all aspects of Sansha’s development ultimately serve China’s sovereignty and security interests.
  • Improvements to Sansha’s physical infrastructure and transportation, including the construction of a smart microgrid on Woody Island, allow Woody Island and other occupied features to accommodate a growing number of military, civilian, and law enforcement personnel and guarantee the continuous operation of important facilities.
  • The development of the city’s communications infrastructure enables local leaders to monitor and govern vast swathes of contested maritime space with ease.
  • Sansha’s leaders have systematically mobilized private and state-owned enterprises in support of nearly every aspect of the city’s daily operations and long-term development.
  • The expansion of the city’s party-state institutions allows municipal authorities to directly govern contested areas of the South China Sea and ensures the primacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests in local decision-making.
  • To defend China’s maritime rights and interests, the city created Sansha Comprehensive Law Enforcement (SCLE), a maritime law enforcement force, and established a new maritime militia force. Sansha has integrated both forces into its military, law enforcement, and civilian joint defense system. Using these capabilities, local leaders physically assert Sansha’s jurisdiction at the expense of China’s neighbors and coordinate joint operations with the CCG.
  • Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control is currently strongest in the Paracel Islands. Despite the continuing influence of the central bureaucracies, CCG, and PLA, elements of this system also exist in the Spratly Islands and show signs of expanding.

About the Author

Zachary Haver is a Party Watch Initiative Fellow at the Center for Advanced China Research. His research focuses on the South China Sea disputes and Chinese economic statecraft. He has worked on Chinese security and economic issues at SOS International LLC, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, and the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. Zachary received his BA in International Affairs from George Washington University. He lived in China for three years, studied Chinese in both Taiwan and China, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.

Acknowledgments

The author thanks Isaac Kardon and the rest of the China Maritime Studies Institute team for their encouragement and helpful feedback. Moreover, this project would not have possible without generous support from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). Finally, the author thanks Devin Thorne for his valuable contributions.

PREVIOUS STUDIES IN THIS CMSI SERIES:

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