China’s army launched its biggest waterborne military vessel on Monday, in a move that reflects the country’s increasingly aggressive claims on the South China Sea as well as its commitment to maintaining a permanent, forward-deployed force within striking distance of other contested islands in the region.
GY820, an integrated support ship, measures 90 metres in length and is 14.6 metres wide, with a displacement of greater than 2,700 tonnes—more than any other vessel operated by the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force.
As its name suggests, the GY820 is categorised as a transport (“yunshu”) vessel under Guangzhou Military Command. Its primary function will be to resupply its homeport at Sansha, a prefecture-level city on Woody (Yongxing) Island, the largest in the Paracel group seized by China following a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974.
The entire territory administered under Sansha, encompassing several island groups and undersea atolls, is disputed by regional neighbours. Previously a county-level Administrative Office, Sansha’s 2012 upgrade was described as “unilateral” by the US Department of State and criticised by rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines.
In China, the establishment of a prefecture-level city typically necessitates the creation of a military sub-district or garrison, which was duly set up on the island a month after its administrative promotion.
Sansha now administers three disputed archipelagos: the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and Spratly Islands. Home to just 1,443 permanent, land-based residents, Sansha is by far the least populated prefecture-level city in China.
Despite covering just 13 square kilometres of dry land, however, it also includes 2,000,000 square kilometres of the South China Sea, making it concurrently the smallest and largest city in the country.