China asserts islands claim with Sansha and ships
China does not want to control all of the South China Sea, says Wu Shicun, the president of a government-sponsored research institute here devoted to that strategic waterway, whose seabed is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. It wants only 80 percent.
Mr. Wu is a silver-haired politician with a taste for European oil paintings and fine furniture. He is also an effective, aggressive advocate for Beijing's longstanding claim over much of the South China Sea in an increasingly fractious dispute with several other countries in the region that is drawing the United States deeper into the conflict.
China recently established a larger army garrison and expanded the size of an ostensible legislature to govern a speck of land, known as Yongxing Island, more than 200 miles southeast of Hainan. The goal of that move, Mr. Wu said, is to allow Beijing to "exercise sovereignty over all land features inside the South China Sea," including more than 40 islands "now occupied illegally" by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
In the past several weeks, China has steadily increased its pressure, sending patrols with bigger ships and issuing persistent warnings in government-controlled newspapers for Washington to stop supporting its Asian friends against China.
The leadership in Beijing appears to have fastened on to the South China Sea as a way of showing its domestic audience that China is now a regional power, able to get its way in an area it has long considered rightfully its own. Some analysts view the stepped-up actions as a diversion from the coming once-a-decade leadership transition, letting the government show strength at a potentially vulnerable moment.
"They have to be seen domestically as strong and tough in the next few months," Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said of the senior leadership. "They have to make sure they are not seen as weak."
The Obama administration, alarmed at Beijing's push, contends that the disputes should be settled by negotiation, and that as one of the most important trade corridors in the world, the South China Sea must enjoy freedom of navigation. The State Department, in an unusually strong statement issued this month intended to warn China that it should moderate its behavior, said that Washington believed the claims should be settled "without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force."
Washington was reacting to what it saw as a continuing campaign on the South China Sea after Beijing prevented the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at its summit meeting in Cambodia in July, from releasing a communiqué outlining a common approach to the South China Sea.
The dispute keeps escalating. On July 31, the 85th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the Chinese Defense Ministry heralded the occasion by announcing "a regular combat-readiness patrol system" for the waters in the sea under China's jurisdiction.
The government then said it had launched its newest patrol vessel: a 5,400-ton ship. It was specifically designed to maintain "marine sovereignty," said People's Daily, the Communist Party's leading newspaper.
Adding to the anxiety among China's neighbors, a Chinese Navy frigate ran aground in July near a rocky formation known as Half Moon Shoal, in waters claimed by the Philippines. The accident raised questions about the competence of the Chinese Navy and suspicions about what the boat was doing there.
Mr. Wu, who is the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies as well as the director general of the Hainan provincial government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that none of China's actions were untoward.
Interviewed in his spacious office decorated with landscape paintings from Italy and Russia, he had recently returned from a day of festivities for the expanded legislature and garrison on Yongxing Island.
Yongxing, a sand-fringed island of less than a square mile dominated by an airstrip that can handle midsize passenger jetliners, is part of what China calls the Xisha Islands. They are known as the Paracels in Vietnam, which also claims the territory.
A Boeing 737 flew special guests to the party, including the Communist Party chief for Hainan Province, to celebrate the newly inducted legislators, and the garrison, Mr. Wu said.
The increased military presence on the island makes the Philippines especially nervous because it thrusts China's presence closer to the islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as its own.
Since the 1990s, the approximately 620 Yongxing Island residents have enjoyed drinking water, electricity and air-conditioning, Mr. Wu said. The new 45-member legislature, which sits in a two-story brick building with pillars and a dome draped with blue and red bunting for the celebrations, is intended to issue laws on maritime issues, he said.
At Mr. Wu's institute, here on Hainan Island in a handsome new building, visitors are invited into a modern screening room where they are greeted with a video that is a policy sales pitch. The video says that China enjoys maritime rights over "a vast area" of the South China Sea, though it does not specify how much. The 1.4 million square miles of the sea are "crucial to the future of China as a growing maritime nation," since the sea is a trade conduit between China and the United States, Africa and Europe, the video says.
The deputy director of the institute, Liu Feng, said that China not only claimed sovereignty over most of the islands in the South China Sea, but also transportation, fishing and mineral extraction rights over "all waters within the nine-dash line."
The nine-dash map, which appears in government documents and even in Air China's in-flight magazine, is one of the central points of conflict in the South China Sea dispute. The U-shaped line south of China passes close to Vietnam, then around Malaysia and north to the Philippines. It was drawn by China before the Communist takeover but is not recognized by any other country.
On how long it would take China to win back the islands that it claims sovereignty over, Mr. Wu said he could not estimate. The other claimant countries were standing firm, he said. Moreover, the re-engagement of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region "means we will have obstacles in solving the South China Sea questions between China and the relevant claimant states."
The sustained attention to the South China Sea has been almost certainly coordinated from the senior ranks of the central government, Chinese analysts and Asian diplomats said. "Suddenly, the top leaders have taken a more hard-line policy," said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to the State Council, China's equivalent to the cabinet.
After the State Department criticized China's actions, Beijing immediately accused Washington of taking sides with smaller Asian nations against China. On Aug. 4, the Foreign Ministry summoned Robert S. Wang, the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Beijing, and in an accompanying statement said the State Department had shown "total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message."
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