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With tropical island foothold of Sansha, China keeps grip on South China Sea

China’s outpost of Sansha in the South China Sea has sent vessels to drive away at least 370 foreign ships from disputed waters in the area in recent years, according to an article penned by its mayor, Xiao Jie.

The patrols were carried out from Sansha, a prefecture-level city set up four years ago to administer the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and the Macclesfield Bank, called the Zongsha Islands by China. They have patrolled 324 times over 46,000 nautical miles in what is called a “five in one mechanism to safeguard China’s maritime rights”, referring to a combination of forces of the Communist Party, government, military, police and civilians.

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Militia posts that could serve as offices, recreational centres and typhoon shelters on Woody Island – Yongxing Island in Chinese – and Tree Island were already in use. Construction of similar posts on Drummond Island and Robert Island was underway, the article said.

The above-mentioned islands are part of the Spratly Islands, and Drummond Island is also claimed by Vietnam.

The article said Chinese flags were routinely raised on another nine islands and atolls, but did not provide detailed information on these.

Satellite photos showed China had been rapidly building military outposts on disputed islands in the South China Sea, significantly boosting its presence in the already tense region, according to a US Pentagon report in May.

The Sansha government had spent more than 1 billion yuan (HK$1.16 billion) on bettering living conditions and transportation on islands and atolls, and now chicken and ducks could be seen and airports and ports were being utilised, the mayor’s article said.

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“Sansha is politically and strategically important to China right now, rather than militarily important,” said Zhou Chenming, a military observer. “It would take a long time to make full use of military units on these islands. But these units would certainly deter other claimant countries at present.”

Sansha was set up to consolidate China’s claims in the disputed waters amid growing tensions in the South China Sea, and has drawn strong criticism from other claimant countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.