August 7, 2012: China recently declared that most of the 3.5 million square kilometers South China Sea had become Sansha, the latest city. The area China claims is within the city limits comprises over two million square kilometers of largely open ocean and a few hundred tiny islands and reefs, many of which are only above water during low tide. Sansha is administered from one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island). The U.S. government responded by asking that China obey international law. China currently claims South China Sea areas close to neighboring nations, except for areas about 22 kilometers from the coast. International law gives all nations control over and oil drilling 380 kilometers off their coasts. China refuses to obey this rule (which it had once agreed to). In response to the American reminder, the Chinese called the U.S. a trouble maker. China is not backing down.
For over three decades China has been using a gradual strategy that involves first leaving buoys (for navigation purposes, to assist Chinese fishermen), followed by temporary shelters (again, for the Chinese fishermen) on islets or reefs that are above water but otherwise uninhabited. If none of the other claimants to this piece of ocean remove the buoys or shelters, China builds a more permanent structure to aid passing Chinese fishermen. This shelter will be staffed by military personnel who will, of course, have radio, radar, and a few weapons. If no one attacks this mini-base China will expand it and warn anyone in the area that the base is Chinese territory and any attempts to remove it will be seen as an act of war. The Vietnamese tried to get physical against these Chinese bases in 1974 and 1988 and were defeated both times.
In 1995, China built one of these mini-bases 114 kilometers from the Filipino island of Palawan on Mischief Reef. Earlier buoys and a temporary structure had been removed by Filipino sailors. But in 1995, while the Philippines had suspended air and naval patrols of the area because of a nearby typhoon (Pacific hurricane), the Chinese rushed in and built a permanent base, on stilts, on the reef. China told the Philippines they would defend this one, and the Philippines found that their American ally was reluctant to go to war over a small structure on stilts on Mischief Reef. Four years later the Chinese expanded the Mischief Reef stilt structure and now it was obviously a military base. The Philippines protested and China ignored that. Now the Philippines is drilling for oil off Palawan and Chinese is using this "base" as the basis for declaring the drilling operations illegal. China has threatened to use force against oil companies that dare drill in their territorial waters without permission.
This is part of a strategy based on the ancient principle that, when it comes to real estate, "possession is 9/10ths of the law." It's the law of the jungle because all the claimants are armed and making it clear that, at some point down the road, force will be used to enforce claims. With the establishment of Sansha City, China is saying the next time anyone does anything China does not like within the city limits it could be war, because a government has to defend its sovereign territory.
That is not gonna go over well in the capitols of Vietnam, Philippines, and the U.S.. There is a war brewing down there, and China is playing with fire, next to a powder keg.