When China created Sansha city last week to assert its authority over the South China Sea, nationalistic and enterprising Chinese started buying up Internet domain names with the word “Sansha.”
They succeeded, mostly. But when it came to the prized sansha.com, they were thwarted — by a French company of the same name which is famous for its non-controversial ballet shoes.

"This is most interesting,” the company's New York store manager Vanessa Novak told The Straits Times over the phone, chuckling.

"We had absolutely no idea that our website has been drawing that much attention in China.” 

Anything with Sansha emblazoned, pointe shoes notwithstanding, has been a magnet for attention lately.


Its promotion to a prefectural-level government, instead of a lower county-level one, was announced last month, before being formalized last week.

As China's administrative center for the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands and adjoining waters, its new higher rank rankled.

The move was seen as provocative by the United States. It also left many in this region wondering about China's motivations.

The answer, according to Chinese experts, is fairly simple. It is to tell the other claimants of the islands that Beijing plans to exercise sovereignty over the waters.

"It is a strong signal to show that China will not back down on the South China Sea issue no matter what,” said diplomacy analyst Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

In recent months, Beijing has been robust in its response to the dispute in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas.

In April, its fishing boats and enforcement vessels began a two-month standoff with Manila near the disputed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippine coast.

Soon after it ended, a Chinese frigate ran aground in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

This is in addition to bellicose words from the People's Liberation Army which said in late June that it would commence “combat-ready patrols” of the contested waters.


On the diplomatic front, Beijing also exerted pressure on ally Cambodia to block any mention of the maritime disputes in an ASEAN joint statement.

And, of course, there was the setting up of Sansha.

Such moves are in keeping with China's claim to all waters and islands within a “nine-dash line” that encloses most of the South China Sea.

But the country has been at pains to point out to anyone who would listen that China has not actually been the provocative party.

As researcher Zhou Fangyin from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said: “We feel that we have a lot of grievances. Actually, we are very gentle and controlled. But in the end, we are being scolded by everyone.”

Beijing has stressed, for instance, that Sansha's creation was because Vietnam had first raised the stakes by passing a maritime law last month declaring sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Paracels and Spratlys.

"China had wanted to shelve the debate,” observed military expert Wang Xiangsui of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

But despite the rising temperature, analysts here do not believe that a military battle is imminent.

"On the surface, the South China Sea problem seems to be getting more exciting,” said observer Zhang Mingliang from Jinan University in Guangzhou. “But most of it has been rhetoric. It will not lead to instability and disrupt peace.”

Agreeing, professor Li believes that ASEAN countries in the dispute are aware of the danger of skirmishes. “Each claimant party, of course, would have made relevant preparations for the worst-case scenario, but I don't think the likelihood of war in the South China Sea is high right now or in the coming few years,” he said. “I think all claimant states understand that the costs of war are too high and wars are unlikely to settle the dispute once and for all.”

One thing is for sure though. China's claim to Sansha will not extend into cyberspace.

General manager Lynn Campbell of dancewear company Sansha said in an email reply: “The domain name is not for sale.”

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