10 Years of Sansha City in the South China Sea: Better Equipped and More Effective

Posted: 28th July 2022
By: Insikt Group


Editor’s Note: The following post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.

This report analyzes the activity of Sansha City, which is responsible for administering China’s claims in the South China Sea, with a focus on activity between mid-2021 and mid-2022. It draws from procurement records, local government bulletins, automatic identification system (AIS) data, satellite imagery, Recorded Future® Platform data, and other open-source information. The report will be of most relevance to governments and militaries with an interest in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, as well as journalists and analysts following the South China Sea disputes. Information about the report’s author, Zoe Haver, can be found at the end of the report.

Executive Summary

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) established Sansha City in July 2012 to administer the bulk of its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea. After 10 years of development, Sansha is now well-equipped to advance China’s maritime and territorial interests on a day-to-day basis at the expense of the PRC’s neighbors. This report examines examples of the city’s recent activity in the following areas: maritime law enforcement, communications, open-source intelligence, information technology, party-state governance, maritime militia operations, and external partnerships. As a result of the activities documented here, the Chinese party-state’s ability to monitor and control contested areas is strengthening and the PRC’s scattered outposts are becoming increasingly effective hubs of Chinese activity, helping to transform disputed land and sea space into de facto PRC territory.

Key Judgments

  • 10 years of continuous development has equipped Sansha City with the infrastructure, technology, and other assets that it needs to effectively govern contested areas of the South China Sea.
  • Sansha uses its maritime law enforcement and maritime militia capabilities to enforce the PRC’s maritime and territorial claims without risking military escalation, and is actively improving these capabilities.
  • The city is investing in technologies that facilitate information sharing, support vessels’ operations across the South China Sea, and streamline day-to-day affairs on occupied features.
  • In addition to carrying out local administration, the party-state authorities in Sansha very likely support efforts to legitimize China’s claims in international legal and academic fora and monitor the international political, military, and legal trends affecting the South China Sea disputes.
  • The city frequently leverages the resources, expertise, and technologies of third-party entities to support its mission, including state-owned enterprises like China Mobile, private companies like Huawei, state-affiliated think tanks like the National Institute of South China Sea Studies, and private think tanks like Grandview Institution.


10 years ago on July 24, 2012, China officially established Sansha City (三沙市) and granted it jurisdiction over a significant portion of the South China Sea. In total, the city supposedly administers more than 280 islands, reefs, and other features and their surrounding waters, which add up to around 2 million square kilometers (800,000 square miles) of sea and land. Its headquarters is on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, and most of its activity has thus far been concentrated in the Paracels. When the city was created in 2012, the PRC’s outposts were sparsely populated and underdeveloped, often struggling with basic necessities like electricity and fresh water, which seriously restricted the scope of activity on PRC-occupied islands and reefs. Since then, Sansha’s leaders have worked tirelessly to develop the city, building infrastructure, setting up new political institutions, investing in transportation, mobilizing companies, constructing housing, deploying maritime surveillance capabilities, and improving communications in both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands. Sansha’s leaders have also created a highly capable maritime militia force and worked closely with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and China Coast Guard (CCG) to enforce China’s claims and project power into maritime Southeast Asia. After 10 years of effort, Sansha City has realized a system of normalized administrative control that allows the PRC to increasingly govern contested areas as if they were actual Chinese territory.

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt of a full report. To read the entire analysis, click here to download the report as a PDF.