Vietnamese protest
Vietnamese protestReuters

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the most important Chinese city after Beijing is the new city of Sansha. Sansha occupies a small island in the South China Sea where fresh water is brought in every day by boat. The city" has a population of 1000 people and has just elected a mayor.

The importance of Sansha is its location on Yongxing island and China intends that the island will display its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands . Vietnam also claims the Paracels while the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have competing claims for the Spratlys.

The Philippines and Vietnam have already protested the Chinese action, but the Chinese Global Times responded that " China will not back down on sovereignty issues, despite encountering criticism for its establishment of Sansha city in the South China Sea from the US, Vietnam and the Phillipines.

The Philippines and Vietnam are no match for China - they are looking to the United States for assistance. While the United States is willing to back Japan in a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, it has done little more than mildly scold China for taking unilateral actions.

The United States does not want to be dragged into an armed conflict with China over the territorial disputes and is seeking a negotiated settlement. US military spokespersons also contend theat the island city does not alter the balance of power in the region, but merely represents China showing the flag. The American position harks back to the American strategy of island hopping during the 2nd World War, when Japanese island garrisons were simply bypassed and rendered useless.

The problem with the US position is that the Chinese action has a diplomatic, more than a strategic, purpose. The Chinese have replied that Sansha is a domestic affair of China and therefore the US has no reason to intervene. If the US merely acquiesces to the Chinese move, it risks demoralizing Southeast Asian countries who had banked on the Americans for support against China and in return for such support were willing to draw closer to the United States.

One analysis in the Philippines is that the country has been left to shift for itself "China is assuming that no nation, including the United States, will confront China with military force in these matters."

Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies speaking to Global Times rubbed it in: "The US should reflect on its diplomatic interference in the region which has sent inaccurate signals to neighboring countries." In other words the countries in the region should not entertain false hopes that an American ally will rescue them but should try to make the best deal possible with China.