In a move that promises to stir new tensions in the South China Sea, China announced this month plans to build an “island city” to oversee administration of land the features it claims in the contested maritime area, including the Paracel and Spratly island chains and Macclesfield Bank.

The plan calls to convert Woody Island and two smaller islets known as Tree and Drummond into a “national key strategic service and logistics base”, Zhang Jun, Communist Party secretary of the Sansha administrative unit in the Paracel islands, said on March 15.

It was not immediately clear if the “island city” would include overt military facilities. “We need to carefully plan the overall development of the islands and reefs based on their different functions, taking into account their complementary relationship,” Zhang said.

Chinese construction in the contested international waterway is not new, witnessed in its recent large-scale land reclamation and island-building. But analysts say the island city plan marks a new expansionary phase of populating remote features.

Security analysts believe the scheme as a next step in Beijing’s evolving multi-phased plan to declare a South China Sea exclusion zone, including an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), that would effectively turn the sea into China’s internal waters.

Map depicting the Paracel island chain, including Woody Island, where China intends to build a new ‘island city.’ Image: Wikipedia

The island city plan also jibes with China’s massive reclamation activities in the maritime area, which began in earnest in late 2013 and have since transformed various contested rocks and atolls into full-fledged islands using state-of-the-art geo-engineering.

Beijing has turned the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratlys into fully fledged islands, in which it has installed a number of military and civilian facilities.

China’s recent deployment of advanced weapons systems to specific features have raised concerns about freedom of navigation and overflight – and the potential for a great power conflict with the US.

The island city plan, some analysts suggest, would inevitably serve a military purpose in a conflict scenario. It is not immediately clear how the island city would tilt the region’s strategic balance, if at all.

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Last April, President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to Hainan province, which currently oversees Sansha City, China’s administrative center for the South China Sea.

There, he called on the country’s officials and leading scientists to do whatever necessary to secure the country’s interests and sovereign claims in the South China Sea. Xi also personally supervised the country’s biggest ever South China Sea naval drills last April.

“There is no road in the deep sea, we do not need to chase [other countries], we are the road,” Xi announced in regard to China’s South China Sea reclamation and militarization activities.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua

Sansha chief Zhang did not provide further details on the island city plan’s announcement, but underscored that his administrative unit must “take active steps and demonstrate their initiatives” so that it can submit a “satisfactory report card” to Xi.

Chinese officials have recently been put on a war footing. In a fiery speech in January, Xi called on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for all possible contingencies as the country appears poised to reach a moment of strategic truth by declaring a South China Sea exclusion zone.

“All military units must correctly understand major national security and development trends, and strengthen their sense of unexpected hardship, crisis and battle,” Xi said. “Preparation for war and combat must be deepened to ensure an efficient response in times of emergency.”

China’s hardening position comes against military and diplomatic pushback from the US and its key allies, including Japan, Australia and France. All have recently conducted freedom of navigation and overflight operations to challenge Beijing’s wide claims in the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly criticized China’s “illegal island-building in international waterways” while accusing Beijing of using “coercive means” to block energy development in the South China Sea.

A US naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook
A US naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

That strident US rhetoric has been backed with military force. Earlier this month, Washington deployed two sets of B-52 nuclear-capable bombers over Beijing-claimed land features in the South China Sea.

The US Navy, meanwhile, has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) close to the Paracels, where the proposed new island city would be built. Vietnam also stakes claim to the Paracels, as does Taiwan.

The US has so far this year conducted two FONOPs in the area, deploying the USS McCampbell Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to the Paracels in January, while the USS Spruance and USS Preble sailed near the China-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in February.

Last year, the US conducted five FONOPs in the area, compared to four altogether in the three previous years, marking the largest number of such operations in recent history.

Those muscular moves may embolden other sea claimants in the region to launch their own push-backs to China’s fast expansion.

One example: Philippine statesmen this month filed a complaint against Xi at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, in a bid to use international law to “check [China’s] impunity” in the disputed waters.

Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Warships and fighter jets from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who oversaw the country’s South China Sea arbitration case win against China at The Hague in 2016, and former Supreme Court Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, have both backed the ICC complaint.

In a letter which was filed just days before the Philippines officially withdrew from the ICC, the two senior officials accused Xi and senior Chinese leaders of committing crimes against humanity through a “systematic plan to control the South China Sea.”

(President Rodrigo Duterte, who has cultivated close ties with Beijing, said he did not support the motion.)

The ex-top officials also accused Xi of engaging in a policies, “which involve massive, near-permanent and devastating environmental damage across nations” through its large-scale reclamation activities.

While it’s doubtful the complaint will gain legal traction given the ICC’s equivocal jurisdiction on matters concerning territorial disputes and aggression, it has underscored rising anxieties over China’s increasingly militarized ambitions for the sea.