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China consolidates claim in South China Sea

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 17, 2013

    It has barely been a month since the 12th National People’s Congress ended, with new appointees to various ministries and committees in the State Council. While one would have expected the new dispensation to settle down, one area that has seen plenty of activity, albeit unobtrusive, is the South China Sea. In 2012, China upped the ante on all fronts on issue. Diplomatically, it stalled the “Code of Conduct” at the 20th ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh; politically, it declared the South China Sea as a “core national interest” and “non-negotiable”; and militarily, it raised a new military garrison on Yongking island with a mandate to administer and control over 200 islets, sand banks and reefs in the Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands, and over 2 million square kilometers of waters within the “nine dash line” of the South China Sea.

    Having buttressed its claims with legitimacy of its sovereign rights, China is now moving towards slowly consolidating its claims.

    Significantly, in early April China hosted the 12th annual Boao Forum for Asia (BFA)—a congregation of 2,500 industrialists and business community from over 30 countries—at Sanya, in Hainan Province. It must be noted here that Hainan also administers the Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha (Pratas), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands in the South China Sea. The significance of the venue would not have escaped the attention of the international community. While the conference was in progress, China announced that the Xisha islands, disputed between China, Taiwan and Vietnam, would be open to tourism from May this year.1 It also announced that as a part of the security drill during the Boao Forum, a “fleet of five marine surveillance ships will monitor maritime traffic safety, investigate maritime accidents, detect pollution, and carry out other missions around the clock during the Boao Forum.”2 Further, it also banned low flying aircraft during the conference.3 While no mention was made of the area in latitude and longitude over which these marine surveillance and flight restrictions would apply, the fact that the writ of the administration applies over the disputed South China Sea would be axiomatic.

    On March 19, a flotilla consisting of four principal warships and other auxiliaries led by the Jinggangshan, an amphibious Landing Platform Dock (LPD) warship of the South China fleet, carried out a 5,000 nautical mile voyage in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. The flotilla followed the general alignment of the “nine-dash” line in a demonstration of China’s claims in the region.4 The flotilla was at sea for 16 days and crossed through the Bashi Straits (between Taiwan and Phillipines) into the Western Pacific Ocean, beyond the traditional “first island chain”, indicating its capability to operate and project naval power in the Western Pacific. It also visited James Shoal, the southern-most point of the “nine-dash line”, almost 1,800 km from the mainland and just 80 km from Sarawak, an area claimed by Malaysia and China. At the James Shoal, an elaborate oath ceremony was held by the sailors, fuelling jingoism and instilling nationalist fervour in the rank and file. According to the Strait Times, the “crew vowed to ‘defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China’, among other pledges.”5 The fleet commander, Admiral Jiang Weillie, acknowledged that in recent times this training has increased in frequency from “once every few years and nowadays several times every year”6, confirming an active presence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea in recent days. The other achievement during this exercise was the operationalisation of the PLA Marine Corps, which has been trained in undertaking amphibious operations and actions against hostile vessels at sea.7 This force is mandated to undertake sea-landed operations by effecting capture of island territories at sea.

    The most symbolic of all was Xi Jinping’s visit to Sanya naval base. The base is home to China’s submarines, particularly the nuclear submarines, which are moored in tunnels drilled inland from the sea. Sanya is “key to asserting China’s claims and is home to some of the Navy’s most modern vessels and an extensive submarine base”, according to the Washington Post, and is the southern-most base of the PLAN.8 This was Xi’s first visit to the PLA as President and an indication of the Party’s concerns on the importance of the South China Sea. Taking salute at a guard of honour of 11 ships, Xi visited three warships and a “new type” submarine, probably the Type 094 SSBN Jin class, which forms a part of the nuclear triad of the PLA. Like at other military bases, here too he exhorted the soldiers to “integrate their personal goals with the aims of building a strong military”, and the navy to emphasise the need to “nurture fighting spirit”.9

    The trend is unmistakable. In all his visits to military establishments, Xi has been asking the military to be prepared, indicating that sooner or later there would be a need to flex muscle. Earlier in December 2012, immediately on taking over as the Party General Secretary, he had made his first visit to Guangdong Military region, the military region which is responsible of prosecuting operations in the South China Sea.

    As a part of the public relations exercise, Xi also met local fishermen and boarded the Qiong-Qionghai 09045, a 30 metre fishing boat that was stopped by Palau police a year ago for illegal fishing in Palau waters. Palau, a small Micronesian island is home to the world’s first and largest shark sanctuary and guards its waters zealously. One Chinese fisherman was killed and 25 arrested for illegally fishing in Palau in April 2012. The fishermen told Xi that “fishermen feel safe as the country's safeguarding vessels are protecting us”10, an acknowledgement of the fact that the newly overhauled State Oceanic Administration is actively on patrol in safeguarding the marine rights of the Chinese in the maritime domain.

    In short, China continues to pursue its agenda on the South China Sea, employing its political, diplomatic and military departments in a well-coordinated and planned manner. More importantly, the new dispensation has shown no let-down in its support to press on with the issue, and continues to pursue its policy of “non-negotiation” on the issue of sovereignty of the territory within the “nine-dash” line. This policy will only get more aggressive with the passage of time as the Party has raised the decibel level and any compromise or come down could only be construed as weakness and ineptitude, something that would be disastrous for the Party’s image even as it begins to consolidate itself for the next decade.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. “China To Open Xisha Islands To Tourism Before May”, Xinhua, April 7, 2013.
    • 2. “Chinese Surveillance Ships To Monitor Maritime Traffic Safety During Boao Forum”, Xinhua, April 3, 2013.
    • 3. “Hainan to Ban Low-altitude Flights For Boao Forum”, Xinhua, March 30, 2013
    • 4. “Chinese Navy Fleet Heads For Training In W Pacific”, Xinhua, March 29, 2013, available at, accessed on April 12, 2013.
    • 5. Kor Kian Beng, “China's Navy Flexes Muscles In South China Sea”, Straits Times, March 28, 2013.
    • 6. Qian Xiaohu and Song Xin, “Special Interview With Commander of South China Sea Fleet’, China Military Online, April 10, 2013.
    • 7. Zhao Lei, “Vote Of Confidence For PLA Marine Corps”, China Daily, April 1, 2013.
    • 8. “Chinese President Xi Jinping Asserts Military Leadership In Visit To Key Southern Naval Base”, The Washington Post, April 11, 2013, available at accessed on April 12, 2013.
    • 9. Teddy Ng, “Xi Jinping Calls on Navy to be Prepared for Struggle”, South China Morning Post, April 12, 2013.
    • 10. “President Xi Jinping Visits Fishing Villages In Hainan's Qionghai City”, People’s Daily Online, April 12, 2013, available at, accessed on April 12, 2013.