Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP via Getty

To project strength at home and exploit an unprecedented security vacuum caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, China is doubling down on its expansive claims to the contested South China Sea.

China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority, announced in recent days the establishment of two new administrative districts in the South China Sea.

Chinese state media dubbed the little noticed distinction as a “major administrative move”, one that could put Beijing on a new collision course with rival claimants in the maritime area.

The move comes as the United States, the region’s long-time security guarantor, suspends its overseas naval deployments while grounding a major aircraft carrier, the USS Roosevelt, due to a coronavirus outbreak on the vessel. 

The pandemic may also have caused the US Air Force to abruptly end its 15-year-old “Continuous Bomber Presence Mission” in Guam, an unannounced and dramatic move that strategic analysts suggest could open the way for China to be more assertive in adjacent waters

The withdrawal came just days after US bombers took part in a so-called “elephant walk” readiness drill involving the departed bombers, refueling tankers, helicopters and drones, aimed apparently as a statement of American resolve aimed at China.  

The Pentagon has announced it will redeploy the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific to reenforce its Pacific fleet, but America’s suddenly uncertain strategic position has arguably provided a unique opportunity for Chinese maritime expansionism.

Map of China’s South China Sea claims with “Xisha” and “Nansha” islands indicated. China’s wider claims indicated by pink lines. Photo: Wikimedia

In that direction, Beijing introduced on April 18 the Xisha and Nansha districts under the aegis of Sansha City, itself a new prefecture-level unity first established in 2012 on the Woody (Yongxing) Island in the sea’s Paracel island chain that China contests with Vietnam.

Host to 1,800 permanent residents, Sansha covers around two million square kilometers of contested waters, rich maritime resources and a host of low-tide elevations, atolls, islets, rocks and artificial islands.

According to China’s state-run CGTN news network, the city now covers “only around 20 square kilometers of land area now”, indicating to some analysts that China may have designs to expand and create new artificial islands in the area, as it has done elsewhere in the sea. 

The Nansha District will have jurisdiction over the Paracel Islands (Nansha) and be located at the Fiery Cross Reef, a feature China has militarized with an early warning radar site that is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

The reef is widely viewed as China’s command-and-control center for operations in the contested Spratly Islands.

A satellite image of the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Planet Labs

The Xisha District, meanwhile, will administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha) and Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha). Chinese experts and propagandists alike were quick to underscore the importance of the new administrative announcement.

“Eight years after China set Sansha as a city-level administrative unit, it is now time to subdivide it with different districts to further fulfill the responsibility of safeguarding our national sovereignty,” Zhang Junshe, a researched at the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told the state-affiliated Global Times.  

Song Zhongping, another Chinese military expert, told the same Chinese news outlet that “As a city that administers the largest territory among Chinese cities, it is also responsible for managing islands, isles and waters – work that is complicated and sensitive. The newly established districts will help detail the current administrative work in the area and build Sansha into a better city.”

Chinese media and experts have largely portrayed the latest announcement as a logical progression of the country’s sprawling network of civilian and military facilities in the area, which are hosting an ever-larger number of personnel and seemingly permanent residents.

Earlier this month, China announced that it’s also establishing mental health facilities for its troops and personnel in the Spratly islands, where it has built three-kilometer-long airstrips and large military-civilian complexes on artificially reclaimed islands also claimed by neighboring countries.

Following the April 7 visit by Jiang Chunlei, a psychology professor of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Medical University, to Fiery Cross, the Asian powerhouse has said it is now considering building advanced mental healthcare facilities.

That may be a sign of strategic weakness rather than strength as Beijing grapples with the logistics of extending its maritime reach further and further from mainland Chinese shores.

Chinese PLA naval soldiers on the march in a file photo. Image: Facebook

“Despite improved living conditions in recent years, the garrisons always faced challenges and trials both physically and mentally due to arduous tasks and long-term combat readiness,” said a report by Chinese PLA news website on April 17, underscoring the physical and mental strain on troops operating up to 1,200 kilometers away from China’s southernmost shores.

“Such mental service stations are set up to help the officers and soldiers disperse loneliness and boost morale,” the same report added.  

“Being stationed on the artificial islands is like being imprisoned. A glided cage is still a cage,” maritime expert Jay Batongbacal told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, underscoring the difficulties China may be having in maintaining a large-scale personnel presence in the desolate artificial islands.

“I think this is showing just how hard and costly it is for China to maintain those artificial islands,” the Philippine expert added.

At the same time, China appears to be thrusting even further outward to challenge the claims of rival states, including over disputed energy resources.

China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship has been hounding for months Malaysia’s Petronas company-operated West Capella drillship, which has been exploring for energy resources within Malaysia’s continental shelf, according to the maritime tracking website Marine Traffic.

According to Malaysia’s The Star Online, a local security expert with knowledge of the situation claimed that China’s “Haiyang Dizhi 8 was flanked at one point on April 17 by more than ten Chinese vessels, including those belonging to maritime militia and the coast guard.”

Vietnamese militia forces have also reportedly been operating in the area because Malaysia’s western continental shelf overlaps with Vietnam’s.

A Malaysian naval officer looks out over the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

Since last December, the three rival claimant states have stared down in the area, but the Covid-19 pandemic has severely hit smaller regional states which are grappling with large-scale lockdowns to contain their outbreaks.

Malaysian authorities have sought to downplay the situation, likely to prevent a further escalation tensions during a period of intense strategic uncertainty and concerns China may leverage the historic health crisis to consolidate its position in the contested sea.

“We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law,” Zubil Mat Som, the head of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said in reference to China’s surveying vessel, which has been operating within Malaysia’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone in an interview with local media outlet Harian Metro.