China has declared a tiny island its newest city, angering Vietnam and the Philippines, which have sparred with Beijing over its claim that it controls nearly all of the South China Sea.
About 1,000 people inhabit the newly christened city of Sansha on the island of Yongxing, also known as Woody Island, which relies on ships from the mainland for fresh water and medicine. Billing the new city as a bulwark for Chinese sovereignty, China has announced that the island city will host troops and serve as the administrative center for nearby islands claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and neighboring nations.
The Chinese flag was hoisted over the new city on Tuesday to the strains of the national anthem, the official New China News Agency reported. The fledgling city now has its first mayor.
Vietnam, which also claims the Paracel islands where Sansha is located, argued the move violates international law, calling on China to “immediately stop and cancel its wrongful activities.” The Philippines has contested the establishment of the city as well.
“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” President Benigno Aquino argued Monday in an annual address, insisting his country would not back down from its island claims.
Disputes involving the South China Sea have grown increasingly tense and confrontational this year as China and its neighbors expand their military reach and hard-liners have gained political power, the International Crisis Group wrote in a new report released Tuesday, warning of a growing risk of skirmishes at sea.
"While the likelihood of major conflict remains low, all of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing," the research group wrote.
Creating Sansha is the latest of those troubling trends. The idea is not new: The Hainan provincial government has repeatedly tried to establish a governing body over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the past. Its plan to create Sansha made headlines five years ago, triggering protests in Vietnam.
Beijing suspended the plan at that time. The fact that it has blessed Sansha this time around is a sign of worsening relations with Vietnam, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. Vietnam, in turn, issued a law declaring the islands under its jurisdiction.
"These moves have been planned for years -- but both sides had held back," Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.
Although the United States has not taken a stand, its increased attention and overtures to Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian nations have also emboldened the countries to press their claims against China, said Andrew Billo, senior program officer for policy at the Asia Society.
"They feel they have the support of this major global power," Billo said.
China and the Philippines were locked in a standoff this year over a string of islands on the Scarborough Shoal, trading barbs in the media and crimping economic relations. Though the two sides were said to have pulled back their ships last month, Chinese vessels have reportedly returned.
Little came of a recent summit of Southeast Asian leaders over the disputed waters. There is scant agreement even among the neighbors staking their claims against China, which include Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, the International Crisis Group wrote.
"It's very difficult because you have all these nationalisms bumping up against each other," said Robert A. Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "Nobody wants to be soft on national sovereignty."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles