China has raised the administrative status of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands in the South China Sea from county level to prefectural level, a move to improve administrative management on the islands, an official statement said on Thursday.

The State Council has approved the establishment of the prefectural-level city of Sansha to administer the three island groups and their surrounding waters. The government seat will be stationed on Yongxing Island, part of the Xisha Islands, according to a statement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The county-level administration office for the islands, which was established in 1959 and is also stationed on Yongxing Island, has been abolished, the statement said.

A spokesperson of the Ministry of Civil Affairs said on Thursday that the setting up of Sansha city will help to improve China's "administrative management on Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands and their future development".

"It is also conducive to protecting the oceanic environment of the South China Sea," the spokesperson said.

China first discovered and named the reefs, islets and surrounding waters of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands, and has exercised sovereignty control continuously over the area, the spokesperson said.

Chen Shixiang, a professor of public administration at Wuhan University in Central China's Hubei province, said the establishment of Sansha city will make the management of the region more efficient, as a prefectural-level government has more jurisdictional power than a county-level one.

The county-level administration office for the islands was more of an agency to exercise jurisdiction on behalf of the Hainan provincial government, and was not entitled to make regional policies on its own, Chen said.

Gong Yingchun, an expert on international law with the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University, said raising the administrative status of the islands was not a sudden decision.

"China's jurisdiction over the islands of Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha in the South China Sea has continuity, and it is a normal administrative adjustment," Gong said.

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