MANILA, Philippines – China has set up a new “prefecture level” city called Sansha to administer three disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), according to Chinese state-owned Xinhua news agency.
The development has tightened China’s grip on islands that it calls its own in the West Philippine Sea, particularly the Spratlys.
On Thursday, Xinhua reported that Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands have been collectively elevated to prefecture status under Sansha city from their previous county-level status.
Sansha means “city of three sands” in Chinese.
A statement from the Ministry of Civil Affairs said the State Council or China’s Cabinet has approved the establishment of Sansha, with its seat of government on Yongxing Island, which is part of the Paracels.
The county-level “administration office” for the three islands was also based on Yongxing Island.
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs said the creation of Sansha city would help improve China’s “administrative management on Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands and their future development.”
“It is also conducive to protecting the oceanic environment of the South China Sea,” the spokesman said.
He claimed that China set up the administration office for the three islands in 1959.
He also maintained that it was China which first discovered and named the reefs and islets around Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it had no detailed information on China’s latest declaration.
“We don’t have yet the details of this report,” DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said.
Also on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Philippine officials to refrain from making remarks meant to influence public opinion on the month-old standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Hong issued the statement at a press briefing in Beijing when asked to comment on President Aquino’s announcement that Philippine Air Force planes would fly over Panatag Shoal to check on the situation in the area.
Hong asserted it was the Philippine warships’ “harassment” of Chinese fishermen in early April that triggered the Panatag Shoal incident.
He said the Philippines’ tough and high profile stance on the issue had only heightened tensions.
But he said tensions have eased and that the two sides have been vigorously exerting efforts to repair bilateral relations.
“China hopes the Philippine side will do more to help the development of bilateral ties and refrain from stirring public opinion, so as to safeguard the recovery of bilateral ties,” Hong said.
The DFA also said the Philippines greatly appreciates the United States’ reaffirming of its support for the country in its territorial dispute with China, as relayed by Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr.
“What US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said on Thursday was a reiteration of the US position on the territorial dispute and support for the Philippines to seek resolution,” Hernandez said.
The US has been pressing China, the Philippines and other countries with territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea to resolve their dispute through diplomacy, particularly in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
At the 2+2 meeting in May in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had expressed deep concern over developments in the West Philippine Sea and urged China to clarify its motivation and interest in the region.
Hernandez said that Clinton’s message was for nations involved to “subscribe to a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas through peaceful, collaborative, multilateral and diplomatic processes within the framework of international law, reflected in the UNCLOS.”
“This is the same position that the Philippines has repeatedly conveyed to China,” Hernandez said.
Unmindful of China
As China appears to be tightening its grip on territories being claimed by its smaller neighbors, the mayor of Kalayaan town in the Spratlys said he and his constituents would never give up asserting Philippines sovereignty.
Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon, in a telephone interview, said that while China cannot be prevented from doing “crazy things,” they would never recognize its latest effort to strengthen its “administrative control” over the Spratlys.
“We do not recognize that. We are a regime of islands under the Philippine government,” Bito-onon, said, stressing that Kalayaaan town has been in existence for 34 years. He said his municipality celebrated its founding anniversary last June 11.
He also said the seat of the so-called Sansha city on Yongxing Island or Woody Island in the Paracels – a Chinese island garrison – is 364 nautical miles from Kalayaan island town.
“It’s very far from Pag-Asa. It’s not going to affect us,” he said.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have territorial claims in the area.
All Spratlys claimant countries have troops in the region except for Brunei. Jaime Laude