The China State Council’s decision to expand administrative control over two islets in the South China Sea has reignited a long-standing dispute with Vietnam over sovereignty in the South China Sea. Citing Hong Kong media sources, the China Times reported that the China State Council has approved China’s Paracel Islands (Xisha Qundao) Working Committee and Administrative Bureau’s proposal to establish a district-level administrative region, Sansha District, with jurisdiction over the Macclesfield Islands (Zhongsha Qundao), Paracel Islands (Xisha Qundao) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Qundao) (China Times, November 21). The Paracel and Spratly islets have been host to a ongoing dispute between China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines, whose competing claims of sovereignty extends over a part or the entire islets.
The plan to establish the county-level administrative district was allegedly proposed by the Hainan Province Government, reported Hong Kong’s newspaper Ming Pao. According to a telephone interview with Ming Pao, a Hainan Province official in the Propaganda Department by the surname Zhang said that the Wenchang District, the closest district to the Macclesfield Islands, would become a military supply base for the Sansha District (Ming Pao, November 20).
On October 26, during a Wenchang District Council Assembly, Council Secretary Xie Mingzhong revealed that Sansha District had been approved as a district-level administrative region by the China State Council, and has jurisdiction over the three islands within the Hainan Province: Macclesfield Islands, Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands (Ming Pao, November 20).
The assembly minutes provided on the Wenchang District Government’s website used “X District” to conceal the official name. According to Ming Pao, the report indicated that the “X District” held a strategic location and will help expand Wenchang District, stimulate investment, construction and increase the flow of people, products and money (Ming Pao, November 20).
Following a quiet below-the-fray Chinese military exercise in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands from November 16 to 23, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Le Dung lodged a strong protest against the Chinese government. Vietnam claimed that the military exercises were as an encroachment of Vietnam’s sovereignty, and reasserted Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Houng Sa (Paracel Islands) and Troung Sa (Spratly Islands) archipelagos (China Brief, November 29).
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and this has been the consistent position of the Chinese government (Hong Kong China News Agency, December 11). Referring to the peaceful protest by 250 students in front of the PRC Embassy in Hanoi, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Ta Kung said, “The Chinese government has grave concerns over some recent events in Vietnam that can damage China and Vietnam’s friendly relations. We hope that the Vietnamese Government will act responsibly and take earnest and effective measures to prevent the situation from escalating to avoid further damage to bilateral relations” (Takungpao, December 12). The student protested shouting slogans and holding signs that read, “Protect the Homeland” and “Defeat China” (United Daily News, December 10).
In the past, China’s policy toward disputes in the South China Sea has been based on the principle “Set Aside Differences, Jointly Develop,” however, disputes have not ceased. In April 2007, Vietnam designated a section of the Spratly Islands for gas development with the UK British Petroleum (BP) company to develop a natural gas pipeline, and planned to hold elections in the Spratly Islands. The plans were terminated in June 2007 (BBC China, December 4; China Times, December 21).