Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - China has approved the formal establishment of a military garrison on South China Sea islands at the centre of a dispute with Vietnam and Philippines, state media reported today. The command will be based in Sansha city on Woody Island in the Paracels, a city formed in June to administer the area. The Chinese population numbers only a few thousand, mostly fishermen. On Sunday, 45 legislators were named to the new city's congress. Although nothing is known about how many soldiers will be deployed and when, Beijing's decision to set up a garrison is bound to raise tensions in an area that is strategically important for world trade, and rich in raw materials as well as oil and natural gas.
The Central Military Commission (CMC) authorised the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Guangzhou Military Command to ''form a garrison command in'' Sansha city, Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.
The troops would be ''responsible for managing the city's national defence mobilisation, military reserves and carrying out military operations". The command will be ''under the dual leadership of the Hainan provincial sub-command and the city's civilian leaders".
In Vietnam, protests against China's imperialist policy in the Asia-Pacific region continue. About 150 Vietnamese protesters marched through Hanoi yesterday to assert Vietnamese claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands.
The demonstrators, including parents with toddlers and seniors, defied police requests to disperse and circumvented barricades aimed at preventing access to a square where the Chinese embassy is located.
The islands in the South China Sea are potentially rich in oil and are claimed by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Philippines and Malaysia. Attempts by some of them to claim one or more atolls have led to frictions.
The Philippines and Vietnam have slammed Beijing's increased aggressiveness in asserting its sovereignty. In the recent past, incidents have occurred involving Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese fishing boats.
Manila and Hanoi have sought support in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against China. However, a recent ASEAN meeting in Cambodia did not produce any results as member states failed to come up with a joint position against Beijing.
The opposition of the host nation was crucial. Phnom Penh's stance is very much related to its close economic ties to Beijing.
China's hegemonic aims have also raised concerns in the United States, which has beefed up its naval presence in the Pacific.