China is building a military and administrative outpost on Woody Island in the South China Sea. Reuters reports the base will soon host a 5,000-ton coast guard vessel which will patrol disputed ocean territory. Woody Island, called Yongxing in China, is the seat of the Chinese prefecture of Sansha. Several nearby island groups come under Sansha’s administration, including the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Macclesfield Bank, all of which are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, or some combination of all the above.
Woody Island is the largest island in the Spratly and Paracel island groups and home to more people than any other island. It has a runway, a harbor, government buildings, an army barracks, a hospital, shops, and a post office. Fishermen, coast guard, police officers, government workers, and tourists can be found there. From these buildings the Chinese claim to rule the islands, reefs, and atolls in the surrounding archipelago. But in practice many of those outcroppings are inhabited or claimed by China’s neighbors. In order to better emphasize China’s ownership, Reuters reports, Beijing will “gradually establish a regular patrol system on Sansha city to jointly protect the country’s maritime interests.”
China is not the only country with claims on South China Sea territory that is putting facts on the ground by building up administrative and defensive infrastructure on islands it claims; the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan are all doing it too. But China is the most powerful in the group, and the size and reach of its coast guard and navy are increasing by the day.
These islands, though tiny, are hugely important to the countries that claim them, and only partly because they are strategic outposts in an important body of water. On a recent visit to Pratas Island, which is occupied by Taiwan and is the largest South China Sea island (about 1.75 square kilometers), Robert Kaplan called them “microscopic bits of earth with little history behind them and basically no civilians living on them.” This is quite true now but perhaps not for much longer. (Kaplan’s forthcoming book about the South China Sea is scheduled for publication at the end of March.) But, he writes, because of the islands’ small sizes, they are “free to become the ultimate patriotic symbols, more potent because of their very emptiness and henceforth their inherent abstraction: in effect, they had become logos of nationhood in a global media age.” Additionally, they lie close to and protect fertile fishing grounds and possibly undersea oil and gas reserves. And thus do the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Taiwanese, and the Vietnamese all beat their chests.