Surface Forces: Defending China’s Smallest City


August 10, 2022: In July Sansha, the smallest municipality of Hainan province, received a new police boat, the Sansha Zhi Fa 101. It was specifically built to police the least populated (about 2,000 people, most of them military) municipality in China. Sansha has only 13 square kilometers of land and more than two million square kilometers of sea areas containing about 250 tiny islands and reefs. The new police boat is mainly for use around Woody Island, which contains the capital of Sansha and home of most of the 600 civilians recognized as permanent residents of Sansha. The new police boat has a landing platform for a small helicopter as well as small boats for performing rescues or inspections at sea. There are not a lot of weapons because it is literally a police boat for a unique municipality that was created ten years ago as part of an effort to legitimize claims to the South China Sea. Most of China’s disputes over South China Sea areas claimed by other nations went to an international court which ruled, in 2016, that the Chinese claims to those had no merit. Hainan island is definitely Chinese but has only been a separate province since 1984. Before that it was part of the larger (126 million people) Guangdong (Canton) province.

Hainan, with a population of only 10 million, is a large island 20 kilometers off the mainland. Hainan was the last part of China to be occupied by the communists after they defeated the nationalists in 1949 after decades of civil war. The nationalists were forced out in 1950 and retreated to their last stronghold on Taiwan (a slightly larger island with 23 million people), which has remained independent, and much wealthier than Hainan, ever since.

One reason for turning Hainan into a separate province was to turn it into a special economic zone, similar to nearby Hong Kong. By the end of the century Hainan had also gained several major naval bases, including one for most of the submarines in the Chinese Navy. The same strategy was applied to the creation of Sansha in 2012. So far Sansha is mainly a network of naval and air bases while the capital on Woody Island has become a special economic zone where Chinese companies can register a presence and gain tax breaks.

Despite the thin veneer of a civilian population and city administration, Sansa is mainly a military operation. The docks and airfield are mainly for military use, Sansa acquired two specially designed freighters to keep the tiny population supplied with food and other essentials. Woody Island now has a desalination plant but the dozens of small islands occupied by the military are like ships at sea and most receive fresh supplies constantly. There is also a school for the few children on Woody Island.

The huge water area of Sansha is regularly patrolled by the new Chinese coast guard and a naval militia. In 2013 China created what has become a second navy when the new, larger, and more heavily armed Chinese Coast Guard was officially established. This began with combining four of its five maritime police organizations into one new outfit: the Coast Guard Bureau (or China/Chinese Coast Guard). This was actually the old China Marine Surveillance (or CMS, which belonged to a civilian outfit: the Ministry of Land and Resources) that took over the Coast Guard (belonging to the Public Security Ministry), the fisheries police (of the Agriculture Ministry), and the maritime anti-smuggling police (of the General Administration of Customs). China had multiple coastal patrol organizations because it was the custom in communist dictatorships to have more than one security organization doing similar tasks, so each outfit could keep an eye on the other and ensure loyalty. This was inefficient and confusing, thus the consolidation. This involved several months of effort as hundreds of ships were repainted. Some of these ships had heavier armament installed, as the coast guard is a paramilitary outfit while some of the older outfits were sea-going police.

This reorganization reflects the favorite Chinese tactic for asserting its claims to control most of the South China Sea by avoiding the use of military vessels. Instead, it sends out these “police” ships to harass and threaten foreign ships operating in what international law considers the high seas but that China considers its territorial waters. If any of these intruders call in warships, then China will defend itself by calling its own warships and aircraft and protest this act of foreign aggression. To expand on this theme China has been adding a lot of safety, rescue and traffic tracking capabilities to the small islands it has built. It’s all illegal and an illusion but China believes that eventually their version of reality will prevail.

Then there is the naval militia. China’s naval militia has been a major factor in Chinese intimidation operations in the South China Sea. This militia has been around since the 1950s but never used this aggressively. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically.

Since 2015 China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct blockades of islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession. The Chinese fishermen don’t mind the militia work, seeing it as something of a paid vacation with overtones of patriotic service to the state. The militia boats are not true volunteers. When the government “requests” a Chinese fishing boat work for the militia the boat owner complies. Sometimes boat owners grumble when they are called up during a prime fishing season, but refusal is not an option and they make the best of it.

Most fishing boats in the South China Sea are trawler type boats. These boats deploy their nets and then move through an area containing a lot of fish and haul their catch on board and into a refrigerated compartment. Many of the Chinese militia boats are formally called "freezer trawlers." These ships are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities onboard to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30.

The number of Chinese trawlers has expanded enormously since 1985 when there were only 13. Now there are over 2,400 of them operating worldwide. China helped with this expansion by subsidizing ocean-going fishing boats. Those subsidies were gradually withdrawn as the number of larger (than 100 meter) freezer trawlers has grown and these are meant for use in far distant waters.

Many of the Chinese fishing ships involved in confrontations with foreign fishing ships and local coast guard or naval police never seem to catch any fish. These fish-free fishing ships are paid by the Chinese government to be pests and professional victims of oppression by other nations with claims on the South China Sea. These fishing boats do sometimes fish, but not while being paid by their government for what amounts to paramilitary duties.

This tactic was frequently used against the Philippines, a major victim of Chinese claims on the South China Sea. A favorite tactic to take possession of a disputed reef by sending in a growing number (eventually more than 200) Chinese naval militia fishing boats inside the reef. Most of the Chinese trawlers were lashed together in groups of five to twenty boats that formed a pattern preventing real fishing boats from operating inside the reef.

China claimed all these Chinese fishing boats inside the reef were taking shelter from bad weather. This is often the case with reefs in the South China Sea, but there was no correlation between the presence of Chinese boats inside the reef and the actual weather in the area. The Chinese claims don’t stand up to close scrutiny. With so many cellphone videos and high-res images from aircraft and warships available, all China can do is keep lying and do it aggressively and with assurance that no one will do much about it.

That pretty much sums up what the municipality of Sansha is all about.




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