Category: South China Sea

U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

I recently published a short policy brief for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University that examines the evolution of U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea since 1995.

Here’s the executive summary:

U.S. policy toward the disputes in the South China Sea has four features. First, the United States has altered its policy in response to changes in the level of tensions in the dispute. Second, U.S. policy toward the South China Sea has been premised on the principle of maintaining neutrality regarding the conflicting claims to sovereignty. Third, as its involvement in managing tensions has increased, the United States has emphasised the process and principles by which claims should be pursued more than the final outcome or resolution of the underlying disputes, especially conflict management through the conclusion of a binding code of conduct between ASEAN and China. Fourth, U.S. policy in the South China Sea has sought to shape China’s behaviour in the South China Sea by highlighting the costs of coercion and the pursuit of claims that are inconsistent with customary international law. Looking forward, the involvement of the United States in seeking to manage tensions in the South China Sea is likely to continue so long as the territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes remain unresolved and states take declaratory steps and operational actions to assert and defend their claims.

Read the full report here.


Hainan’s New Fishing Rules: A Preliminary Analysis

Hainan’s provincial government has become an increasingly prominent and active player in the South China Sea disputes.  In November 2012, Hainan’s People’s Congress issued new regulations on coastal border security that raised questions about freedom for navigation in the South China Sea (see analysis hereand here).

In November 2013, the same legislative body issued “measures” (banfa, 办法) or rules for the province’s implementation of China’s 2004 fisheries law.  These new rules, which took effect on January 1, raise questions about China’s efforts to exercise jurisdiction over all fishing activities in the disputed South China Sea.

Current concerns focus on Article 35 of Hainan’s new fishing rules. This article states that “foreigners or foreign fishing ships entering sea areas administered by Hainan and engaged in fishery production or fishery resource surveys should receive approval from relevant departments of the State Council.” As the news reportannouncing the new rules indicated, the “sea areas administered by Hainan” constitute 2,000,000 square kilometers, more than half of the South China Sea. If implemented, the measures would constitute an effort to control fishing in the entire region in a manner that is clearly inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In assessing the potential implications of these measures for the disputes in the South China Sea, several points bear consideration.  All told, the new measures reflect part of a continuing effort to affirm and reaffirm China’s claims in the South China Sea, but are unlikely in the short to medium term to result in a sustained Chinese effort to control fishing in these vast waters.

To start, the new measures do not contain any new language regarding foreign fishing vessels in waters that China claims. In fact, the Hainan rules simply repeat almost verbatim Section Two, Article 8 of China’s 2004 fisheries law, which states that foreign fishing vessels operating in sea areas administered by China should receive approval from relevant State Council departments. That is, the new Hainan rules affirmed the application of the 2004 national law to Hainan’s waters (which were already covered by the 2004 law).  Importantly, the recent Hainan rules do not outline or articulate a new policy position regarding foreign fishing vessels in Chinese claimed waters.

In addition, the 2013 rules do not mark the first time that Hainan has sought to regulate the activities of foreign fishing vessels in its waters.  In previous editions of the implementing measures issued for China’s national fisheries law in 1993 and 1998, Hainan’s legislature also required that foreign fishing vessels receive permission to operate in the province’s waters.

Likewise, apart from Article 35, the other forty articles in the newly issued rules discuss rather mundane fishing issues and not the policing of Hainan’s waters. Various topics include fish-farming, fishing methods, the protection of fish stocks and so forth. One rule, for example, sets the minimum length for the catch of various species (e.g., 18 centimeters for lobsters). In other words, the main purpose of the implementing measures appears to be strengthening the regulation of fishing for an island province with a large fishing industry, not further bolstering China’s claims to fishing rights in the South China Sea.

Finally, the 2013 Hainan implementing measures do not state how the province intends to regulate the presence of foreign fishing vessels. Apart from stating that foreign fishing vessels must receive State Council approval to operate in Hainan’s waters, the measures do not discuss how the province will police foreign fishing vessels, including which agencies would be responsible for this mission or what rules of engagement would be used. The sheer size of the waters nominally under Hainan’s administration indicates that actual implementation of these new rules would be a daunting operational task, especially giving the various missions assigned to the newly-formed Chinese Coast Guard.

Any effort to implement these rules would also have to be balanced against China’s relations with other states adjacent to the South China Sea. In 2009, China aggressively policed foreign fishing vessels around the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. In particular, China seized or detained 33 Vietnamese fishing boats with 433 Vietnamese fishermen. China’s assertive actions worsened ties with Vietnam, which subsequently improved after 2011. Clashes between the Chinese authorities and Vietnamese fishing vessels have declined significantly (though some still occur) and the two sides have established a hotline to deal with fisheries issues.

Looking forward, the reference to foreign fishing vessels in Hainan’s new fishing rules reflects a continued desire to affirm Chinese claims in the South China Sea and to do so in a way that is inconsistent with UNCLOS. Nevertheless, the key question is whether China is able – or even willing – to implement the new rules actively and aggressively throughout these waters.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Xi Jinping and China’s Maritime Disputes

At the end of July, the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo held a special study session on the nation’s growing maritime power, which has helped cause controversy with several neighboring states. Official media reports about the meeting emphasized a speech by President Xi Jinping that repeated the main policy themes from the recent 18th Party Congress, calling for China to become a major maritime power by developing its maritime resources and protecting the ocean environment.

But Xi’s most interesting remarks have received scant attention. Under China’s system of collective leadership, speeches at Politburo meetings usually reflect the consensus of the participants – in this case, China’s top 25 leaders. Near the end of his address at the most recent study session, Xi discussed China’s ongoing maritime disputes and predictably repeated many now common talking points, such as “never giving up its legitimate rights and interests,” especially the nation’s core interests. Nevertheless, two other phrases he used may illuminate how Beijing may handle these disputes and therefore deserve greater attention. Xi’s remarks suggest that Beijing may be reconsidering the merits of its most assertive actions in the East and South China Seas—ones that have caused grave diplomatic problems with Japan and many Southeast Asian countries.

First, Xi repeated the late Deng Xiaoping’s 12-character guideline for dealing with territorial disputes over offshore islands such as the Spratlys and Senkaku/Diaoyu. In a series of statements between 1979 and 1984, Deng had outlined his more moderate approach, later summarized as “sovereignty remains ours; shelve disputes; pursue joint development.” In recent years, Chinese scholars and analysts have debated the merits of that approach, sometimes criticized for failing to prevent what have been perceived infringements of Chinese sovereignty. For example, just last year a prominent analyst at the China Contemporary Institutes of International Relations, Chen Xiangyang, called for a more assertive policy. In particular, he suggested that Deng’s guideline be replaced with a tougher approach: “sovereignty of course is ours; maintain the dispute stage; seize the initiative to pursue development; strengthen crisis management and control” (zhuquan dangran zaiwo, jieduanxing baochi zhengyi, zhuajin zizhu kaifa, qianghua weiji guangkong).

However, by repeating Deng’s 12-character guideline, Xi endorsed and affirmed Deng’s earlier position on behalf of the entire Politburo (including two of the People’s Liberation Army’s top generals, Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang). By stating what the party line should be, Xi indirectly addressed the internal debate about Deng’s guideline. Of course, Deng did not offer a plan for resolving the underlying sovereignty disputes, but the Politburo’s affirmation of Deng’s approach indicates that Beijing will be patient, and pursue temporary measures to reduce tensions. It also undermines a growing belief overseas that China is becoming increasingly impatient at sea.

A few days later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi illustrated what Xi’s remarks could mean in reality. During a tour of Southeast Asia, Wang indicated that a final resolution could only be achieved through bilateral talks and would “take time,” while progress on a much-needed Code of Conduct for minimizing maritime problems could only be achieved without outside interference (read: the Philippine decision to seek international arbitration rather than direct diplomatic talks). Thus, Wang emphasized “actively” exploring joint development, though he failed to offer any specific details about how to do so.

Second, Xi said in his speech that China must “plan as a whole the two overall situations of maintaining stability and safeguarding rights” (yao tongchou weiwen  he weiyuan liangge daju), the first time such a phrase has been used by a top leader. This seemed to give equal importance to maintaining regional stability (weiwen) and safeguarding China’s “maritime rights and interests” (weiquan).

In past speeches by China’s top leaders, a reference to the “overall situation” (daju) typically described a primary national interest that Beijing should not allow to be harmed or undermined by specific state policies. In the 1990s, for example, speeches on military modernization asserted that increases in defense spending must be coordinated with the overall progress of economic reform – that is, spending should not increase at the expense of broader goals. More recently, in 2006, during a major speech on Chinese diplomacy, then-President Hu Jintao referred to the equal importance of managing the domestic and international overall situations (guonei, guowai, liangge daju). As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for International and Strategic Studies observed then, Hu’s statement reflected the judgment that Beijing’s domestic policy of urging enterprises to invest abroad had backfired by harming China’s image in the world.

In his speech to the Politburo, Xi thus highlighted the contradiction between China’s enhanced efforts to defend its claimed maritime rights and its desire for regional  stability. This matters for several reasons. First, it represents a recognition that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has harmed its other interests, especially the role of other states in regional security affairs. Since 2010, for example, the United States has clarified its policy in the South China Sea, while deepening its alliance with Japan and underscoring its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Japan administers) under Article V of their mutual defense treaty. Tokyo meanwhile has pursued greater maritime and security cooperation with Hanoi and Manila, among others, including by providing patrol boats.

Second, the stress on the need to balance these competing interests suggests limits to how either will be pursued going forward. On the one hand, China will not rule out reacting to perceived challenges simply to maintain regional stability. On the other hand, China’s defense of its maritime claims will also face hard constraints, lest they further worsen its position in the region. How these interests will be balanced may become apparent as a newly formed Chinese Coast Guard under a reorganized State Oceanic Administration shows how it plans to behave.

In sum, Xi’s remarks to the Politburo deserve special attention. They indicate China may not be as impatient about resolving the South China Sea disputes as some analysts have suggested. And they indicate China’s approach to these disputes may be more nuanced than expected by those who have labeled him as little more than a nationalist hardliner.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat as “Xi Jinping’s Overlooked Revelation on China’s Maritime Disputes.”]

Hainan’s New Maritime Regulations: An Update

On January 1, 2013, Hainan’s new maritime security regulations entered into force.  Entitled Regulations for the Management of Coastal Border Security and Public Order in Hainan Province, they replaced those lastissued in 1999.  When the new regulations were first announced in November they attracted a great deal of attention because they appeared to authorize broad powers to interfere with freedom of navigation throughout the South China Sea.  At the time, however, the full-text of the regulations had not been published, making it difficult to discern the exact impact they would have on China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Now that the regulations have entered into force, the full-text has been released.  Containing fifty-two articles divided into six sections, the new regulations are an expansion and elaboration of the 1999 version, which had forty articles.  Despite the inclusion of new provisions not contained in earlier versions regarding the seizure of foreign vessels, the full-text of the 2012 regulations indicates a primary focus on the management of Chinese vessels and coastal areas.  In fact, according to the Hainan government, the regulations were revised to address increased smuggling, theft and other types of illegal activities at sea.  The complete text of the new regulations confirm my preliminary analysis; China is unlikely to significantly increase efforts to interfere with freedom of navigation, including expelling or seizing foreign vessels.

The bulk of the new regulations, roughly forty-two articles, address the activities of Chinese vessels from Hainan and the provinces coastal waters. Topics include the credentials and documents that Chinese vessels from Hainan must possess and the rules that they must follow in the province’s waters.  For example, the regulations allow public security units to establish warning areas (jingjie quyu) and special management areas (tebie guanli quyu), and to prohibit Chinese vessels from entering these zones.  The regulations also ban Chinese ships from entering the waters of foreign countries, from carrying foreign flags and from entering China’s military administrative districts (junshi guanli qu).  The regulations outline ten types of prohibited actions that would disrupt public order from transporting weapons, selling drugs, smuggling and illegal entry and exit to the use of poisons and explosives, among others.

The activities of foreign vessels within Hainan’s coastal waters are discussed in two of the fifty-two articles.  As outlined in previous Chinese news reports, one provision (Article 31) states that foreign vessels that enter the province’s waters should respect China’s national laws and refrain from any actions that would harm public order, such as illegally stopping within Hainan’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters or landing on the province’s islands and reefs, among others.  The six actions that would provoke action by public security border defense units are the same as reported earlier.

A second provision (Article 47) states that public security border defense units can “legally board, inspect, detain; expel, and force the vessels to stop, change course, or reverse course” as well as “seize offending vessels or instruments such as navigation equipment.”

The new regulations refer specifically to Sansha City, a prefectural-level administrative unit that Hainan established in June 2012 to oversee all the disputed islands and waters that China claims in the South China Sea.  Article Seven calls on public security border defense units to conduct security patrols in the islands, reefs and waters of the city and to support joint law enforcement efforts (lianhe zhifa) in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, the scope of the new regulations will be limited.  First, regarding the activities of foreign vessels, the regulations refer only to the province’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters (linghai).  As a result, the zone where public security units might board or seize foreign vessels is limited to the area where coastal states enjoy more or less sovereign rights apart from innocent passage (that the new regulations do not challenge) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Second, according to Article Five, the regulations apply only to public security border defense units (gong’an bianfang jiguan).  The provision states that the “province’s public security border defense organs are responsible for this province’s coastal defense and public order management work.”  The article further calls on other departments—including foreign affairs, maritime affairs and fisheries—to assist the public security units in their work, indicating that the regulations do not apply directly to these other actors.  In other words, these regulations do not empower “other departments” that routinely operate within China’s claimed 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone to seize or detain foreign vessels.

Third, despite the reference to the islands and reefs of Sansha City, the regulations will be implemented mostly in the waters around Hainan Island itself and the Paracel Islands, not other disputed areas in the South China Sea.  Wu Shicun, the director of Hainan’s foreign affairs office (and president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies), noted in December that the regulations would only apply to those areas of Hainan where China had drawn baselines, from which a 12 nautical mile territorial waters would be delineated.  In 1996, China announced baselines around the Paracels as well as Hainan Island, but not other land features that it claims in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Hainan’s New Maritime Regulations: A Preliminary Analysis

Hainan’s People’s Congress recently approved new regulations for the management of public order for coastal and border defense.  Part of the regulations authorizes public security units to inspect, detain or expel foreign ships illegally entering waters under Hainan’s jurisdiction.  As a result,initial reporting and analysis indicated that the regulations may provide a basis for China to challenge freedom of navigation in the vast disputed waters of the South China Sea.

As the full-text of the regulations have not been published, such conclusions are, at the very least, premature.  Moreover, based on information that is currently available, the regulations will likely focus on the activities of foreign ships and personnel within Hainan’s 12 nautical mile territorial seas and along Hainan’s coast, including its islands.  The basis for this conclusion is analysis of a partial summary of the regulations that Xinhua published.

The regulations govern the activities of Hainan’s public security border defense units (gong’an bianfang jiguan).  This refers to China’s public security border defense troops, which are part of the People’s Armed Police but fall under the Ministry of Public Security and include the Maritime Police (haijing, also referred to as China’s Coast Guard).  These public security units are tasked with maintaining public order in China’s border and coastal areas, including port security and immigration.  However, they are not responsible for maintaining law and order within China’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) or any maritime zone beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  The China Marine Surveillance force under the State Oceanic Administration holds the primary responsibility for these duties along with the Maritime Safety Administration and Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.

The details of the Hainan regulations indicate that the conditions under which public security border defense units are authorized to engage foreign vessels is limited.  Here’s the key paragraph from Xinhua:


The paragraph defines six actions that could warrant boarding or other interference with foreign vessels: 1) vessels that stop or anchor within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea (linghai) or “try to pick a quarrel,” 2) vessels that enter ports without approval or inspection, 3) the illegal landing on islands under the administration of Hainan, 4) the destruction of coastal defenses or production facilities on islands under the administration of Hainan, 5) violations of national sovereignty or propaganda activities that threaten national security, and 6) other actions that threaten the management of public order in coastal and border areas.

The only maritime zone mentioned specifically in the regulations is China’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea, where it enjoys more or less the equivalent of sovereign powers under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  There is no specific reference to boarding foreign vessels in other zones such as the EEZ, though apparent language from the preamble refers broadly to “waters under Hainan’s administration” that could include areas in the South China Sea beyond 12 nautical miles.  Nevertheless, the actions outlined above are all concern with Chinese territory or territorial waters – not the much larger maritime areas that press accounts have suggested.  This is, moreover, consistent with the duties of the China’s public security border defense units that are the subject of the regulations.

The impact on disputed areas in the South China Sea is likely to be minimal in the short to medium-term.  In the regulations, the reference to the islands under Hainan’s administration indicates that they could be used to justify or rationalize the interference with the navigation of foreign vessels in territorial waters around islands and other features that China either occupies or claims in the South China Sea.  However,the Chinese navy and not public security border forces are responsible for the defense of the islands that China holds.   Whether public security units are granted a greater role in disputed areas is a key indicator to track.

In addition, Hainan is not the only Chinese province to pass new regulations governing public order in coastal and border areas.  Within the past week, Zhejiang and Hebei have also passed similar regulations.  Importantly, Hebei is not adjacent to any disputed maritime areas.  This suggests a broader effort among coastal provinces to strengthen the management of public order in border and coastal areas and not a specific focus on disputed areas, though the regulations are relevant as discussed above.

In sum, although the regulations establish a legal basis for Hainan’s public security border defense units to board or seize foreign vessels on or near disputed islands, they are unlikely to result in a major change in China’s behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.  Policing China’s EEZ is the responsibility of the China Marine Surveillance and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, not public security units.  Nevertheless, given the applicability to disputed islands and adjacent territorial waters, China should clarify when and where these regulations apply.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Sinica podcast

During a recent trip to Beijing, I met up with Kaiser Kuo, one of the hosts of the outstanding Sinica podcast.

We discussed recent developments in China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, as well as the state of the Chinese navy.

You can listen to the podcast here.  I had so much fun there’s a bit of popping on the line after the first 5 minutes….

Even if you’re not interested in maritime affairs, the Sinica podcast is a “must listen” show for anyone interested in contemporary China.

Redefining the Status Quo

The most striking feature of China’s behavior in its maritime disputes this year has been efforts to redefine the status quo.  In its disputes with the Philippines and Japan, China has used the presence of its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to create new facts on the water to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims.

Before April 2012, neither China nor the Philippines maintained a permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Fishermen from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China operated in and around the large reef.  At times in the past, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Philippine navy had arrested Chinese fishermen who were inside the shoal.  Since then, Chinese patrols have sailed by the shoal, but no effort has been undertaken to exercise effective control over the shoal or its surrounding waters.

The situation changed following the standoff over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal.  The standoff began in April 2012 when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in the shoal’s lagoon.  After receiving a distress call, two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene, blocking the entrance to the lagoon and preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.  After the fishing boats left the shoal, however, government ships from both sides remained to defend claims to sovereignty over the shoal.  By the end of May, China had deployed as many as seven CMS and Bureau of Fisheries Administration ships.

In early June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships.  Although China never publicly confirmed the existence of such an agreement, ships from both sides left in mid June as a typhoon approached the area.  Later, however, Chinese ships returned and appear have maintained a permanent presence in the waters around the shoal since then.  In mid July 2012, for example, an intrepid news crew from Al Jazeera videotaped an attempt to visit the shoal, only to be turned away by a combination of CMS and fisheries administration vessels.  China has also roped off the sole entrance to the lagoon inside the shoal to control access to it.

Before the standoff, China had no permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Three months later, China had effective control of the shoal and the surrounding waters, thereby altering the status quo in this dispute in its favor.  As an editorial in the Global Times noted, China has “directly consolidated control” of the shoal.

A similar dynamic is underway in the East China Sea over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands.  Before the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islets from a private citizen in September 2012, Chinese government ships had generally avoided entering the 12 nautical mile limit of Japan’s territorial waters around the islands.  As I wrote several years ago, China and Japan appeared to have a tacit agreement from the mid-2000s to limit the presence of ships and citizens near the islands in an effort to manage the potential for escalation.

In September 2010, the detention of a Chinese fishing captain whose boat had broached the 12 nautical mile limit and then rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship sparked a crisis in China-Japan relations.  Part of China’s response included increasing the number of patrols by marine surveillance and fisheries vessels near the islands.  Most of the time, these boats remained beyond Japan’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the Senkakus or crossed this line only briefly.  China in practical terms continued to accept Japanese de facto control of the islands and their associated territorial waters (over which a state enjoys sovereignty rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

After the purchase of the islands last month, however, China has abandoned this approach. China firstissued baselines to claim its own territorial waters around the islands and then began to conduct almost daily patrols within its newly-claimed waters – directly challenging the Japanese control that it had largely accepted before.  The purpose of the patrols is two-fold: to demonstrate that the purchase of the islands will not affect China’s sovereignty claims and to challenge Japan’s position that there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the islands.

Although China does not control the waters around the Senkakus (unlike the situation at Scarborough), it no longer accepts de facto Japanese control.  On October 31, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmanasserted that a new status quo had been created.  After describing China’s new patrols as “routine,” Hong Lai stated that “the Japanese side should face squarely the reality that a fundamental change has already occurred in the Diaoyu Islands.”

In both cases, China responded to challenges to its claims with an enhanced physical presence to bolster China’s position and deter any further challenges.  These responses suggest an even greater willingness to pursue unilateral actions to advance its claims.  In neither case is a return to the status quo ante likely.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

Much Ado About The Sansha Garrison

In June, Beijing raised the “administrative status of the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands” from a county-level administrative office to prefectural-level city named Sansha based on Woody (Yongxing) Island in the Paracels (Xisha) archipelago in the South China Sea. In July, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)  garrison in the newly created city also based on Woody Island.

Analysts and pundits have viewed the announcement of the new garrison with alarm.   viewed the decision as “a sign of [China’s] growing reliance on hard power” in the South China Sea.  equated the announcement with a decision to create “a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters,” a view echoed by the .  Still  a division of at least 6,000 soldiers would be deployed to the region and that the garrison might command units from the PLA Air Force and Navy.

Such conclusions, however, are misplaced.  In particular, they misunderstand the role of garrisons(jingbeiqu, also called garrison commands or garrison headquarters) in the PLA and how China has organized the defense of the islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea.  From a military perspective, the significance of Sansha garrison should not be overstated.  Alone, it will not lead to an increase in combat units in the region nor does it portend a new effort by China to militarize the disputes in the South China Sea.

In the PLA, division-level military garrisons do not command main force combat units such as infantry or armored divisions or brigades.  They also do not command PLA Navy or PLA Air Force units.  Instead, as described in China’s , garrisons and other division-level military sub-districts (junfenqu, also called prefectural military commands) are administrative headquarters established in major cities responsible for supporting the military work conducted by the municipality, such as conscription and national defense mobilization tasks. Garrisons and military sub-districts fall under provincial-level military districts (shengjunqu) and are jointly commanded by the municipality’s party committee and government. As with division-level units, they are headed by Army senior colonels, who are assisted by a handful of staff officers. Depending on their location, garrisons and military sub-districts may command PLA border defense units (up to regimental size) that share responsibility with civilian public security forces (gong’an budui) for guarding China’s borders and providing early warning of an attack.

By our count, the PLA now has about 39 division-level garrisons and nearly another 300 military sub-district headquarters throughout China. In addition, there are four corps-level garrisons in the centrally administered cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing, and the Hong Kong and Macau Garrisons, which report directly to Central Military Commission. Comparatively speaking, at the same organizational level, the PLA Army currently has only about 31 infantry and armored combat divisions (though the number of combat brigades one step below a division has increased to roughly 50).  The PLA has far more division-level organizations than combat-ready divisions.  Thus, by itself, the establishment of division-level garrison such as the one for Sansha does not suggest the deployment of large numbers of forces.

In short, create a city or other prefectural-level administrative unit in China and a garrison or military sub-district will often be established as well.  The Sansha garrison is merely the newest among hundreds of division-level organizations in the entire PLA.  noted that the new garrison had been upgraded from People’s Armed Forces Department (wuzhuangbu) that was part of the previous county-level administrative office.  Moreover, consistent with the 2006 white paper, the Ministry of Defense spokesman stated that the  were “defense mobilization… city guard, support for the city’s disaster rescue and relief work, and [direction of] militia and reserve troops.”

So far, no border defense units have been assigned to the Sansha garrison.  Instead, the existing Xisha (Paracels) maritime garrison under the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet is responsible for the actual defense of the islands in the South China Sea under China’s control.  The Paracels maritime garrison is one of six division-level maritime garrisons (shuijingqu) that fall under the command of one of the three regional fleets in the PLA Navy.  Maritime garrisons are responsible for conducting defensive operations (fangwei zuozhan) in their designated area and may command PLAN combat units.

Although it is not clear when the Paracels maritime garrison was established, reports of the unit first appeared in the Chinese press in 1985.  Nevertheless, China’s deployment of troops to the South China Sea began almost three decades earlier, in the 1950s when the PLA occupied Woody Island in the Amphitrite Group of the Paracels.  Following several confrontations with South Vietnamese forces in the Crescent Group of the Paracels in the mid-1950s, Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 instructed the PLA to establish a base on Woody Island and in 1960 regular patrols around the Paracels were initiated.  In 1971, the PLAN began to upgrade and expand the infrastructure in the Paracels, which has continued steadily until to the present day and includes a military-capable airfield built over 20 years ago. To date, there has been little to no evidence that the airfield has been used to accommodate “a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters.”

The Xisha maritime garrison is commanded by a senior captain (equivalent to an Army senior colonel), the former head of the PLAN’s 1st Marine Brigade, a main force combat unit in the South Sea Fleet.  The number of troops in the maritime garrison is unknown, but a 2002 report from Taiwan stated that China has deployed around 590 troops on the features in controls in the Spratlys (while Vietnam had around 2020).  The Ministry of Defense spokesman stating, “the Sansha military garrison and Xisha maritime garrison are separate military organs executing duties according to their respective responsibilities… the Xisha maritime garrison… is responsible for maritime defense and military combat.”

What, then, is the significance of the establishment of the Sansha garrison?  First, from a military perspective, it is a minor development.  It likely will not command any combat units nor will it result in a substantial increase in the Chinese forces in the South China Sea.  Rather, it is designed to enhance coordination with the local government.  Its importance is political, part of what  unabashedly described as China’s effort, “to display its sovereignty over the South China Sea.”

Second, because the PLA has maintained a military presence on the features it holds in the South China Sea for decades, the creation of the garrison  about  of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy or policy in the South China Sea. Instead, the establishment of the garrison reflects the bureaucratic upgrade of an existing department following a change in the administrative status of the associated locality.

Third, militarily, any forces on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea are vulnerable and hard to defend. As retired U.S. , “Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag — to say, ‘We are serious.’”

Finally, the general reaction to the creation of the Sansha garrison reflects the limited understanding among analysts and observers of the PLA’s organization despite Beijing’s efforts to describe the structure of the Chinese armed forces in biannual white papers and media reports. For example, none of the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power  this level of organization.  In the case of Sansha, the Chinese government could have better explained its decision, while commentators might have examined what garrisons actually do before jumping to ill-founded conclusions.

[This piece was co-authored with Dennis J. Blasko and originally appeared on .]