• Zachary Haver

How Sansha City Implements Military-Civil Fusion in the South China Sea



In 2012, China established Sansha City to administer the majority of its maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea. In the years since, the city has continuously developed its headquarters on Woody Island and its other settlements across the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In coordination with central organs and officials in Hainan province, the authorities in Sansha have constructed harbors, created new party-state institutions, installed telecommunications infrastructure, set up a new maritime militia force, built smart microgrids, organized a new maritime law enforcement force, and pursued other such initiatives. Because the city is located on the front lines of the South China Sea disputes and because the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintains a significant presence in the city, nearly every aspect of the Sansha’s development is rooted in the principle of “military-civil fusion” (军民融合). Broadly speaking, military-civil fusion is China’s strategy for coordinating the pursuit of national defense and national development goals.[1]


Sansha City’s military-civil fusion program began with a mandate from Beijing. When the State Council approved the city’s establishment in 2012, it specified three key requirements for Sansha: to “put defending national sovereignty and security in a prominent position” (把维护国家主权和安全放在突出位置), to “earnestly implement national defense requirements, attend to both the military and civilians, and combine peace and war in the construction of all things” (在各项建设中认真贯彻国防需求、军民兼顾、平战结合), and to “realize the coordinated development of national defense construction and economic construction” (实现国防建设与经济建设协调发展). In accordance with this guidance, provincial and municipal authorities have consistently prioritized “military-civil fusion-style development” (军民融合式发展) and other similar goals for the city.[2]


Publicly available documents confirm Sansha City’s continued commitment to a wide-ranging program of military-civil fusion. For example, in 2019, the China Society of Administrative Reform (中国行政体制改革研究会) signed a contract for “military-civil fusion innovation and development research” with the Sansha City Military-Local Government Fusion Development Bureau (三沙市军地融合发展局).[3] This contract suggests that the PLA and municipal authorities coordinate planning and development in areas like infrastructure, science and technology, education and medical services, and ecological and environmental protection. The document further indicates that, in line with Hainan’s broader military-civil fusion priorities, the city is aiming for a system of “joint discussions, joint science and technology encouragement, joint facilities construction, and joint logistics guarantees” and is working to turn Woody Island into a “military-civil fusion development demonstration base.”


Image: Screenshot of the “military-civil fusion innovation and development” contract signed by the China Society of Administrative Reform and the Sansha City Military-Local Government Fusion Development Bureau.


In practice, the leaders of Sansha City have pursued military-civil fusion in a number of different areas. For example, Sansha has built a system of “military, law enforcement, and civilian joint defense” (军警民联防) to defend China’s “maritime rights and interests” (海洋权益) in the South China Sea.[4] This system has three main layers. The first layer is composed of the PLA, including both the PLA Hainan Province Sansha Garrison (中国人民解放军海南省三沙警备区) and possibly other forces like the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet. The second layer comprises maritime law enforcement forces like the newly established Sansha Comprehensive Law Enforcement (三沙综合执法), which operates four cutters and is currently building a fifth. The third layer is made up of the city’s professionalized maritime militia, which has reportedly grown to over 1,800 members and over 100 vessels.[5] Using this system, Sansha facilitates joint exercises, joint operations, and information sharing between various forces. For example, according to the director of the political department of the Sansha Garrison, after members of Sansha’s maritime militia report a foreign fishing boat operating in the city’s waters, the garrison “unites the military, law enforcement, and civilians” to handle it.


Sansha City has also pursued “joint construction, mutual benefit, and common use” (共建共享共用) as part of its military-civil fusion program.[6] Broadly speaking, this model involves the municipality working with the PLA to build infrastructure that supports both civilian personnel and troops stationed in the city. For instance, Woody Island’s sewage treatment plant, airport, garbage processing station, seawater desalination plant, transportation and supply ships, hospital, school, and sports fields all reportedly serve both communities. A particularly notable example of this approach is the city’s smart microgrid on Woody Island. Working with municipal officials, the PLA, state-run research institutes, and other organizations, Chinese companies designed and built (and have continuously upgraded) a smart microgrid on Woody Island. This grid integrates distributed photovoltaics, battery storage, diesel generators, and smart control technology. This technology, which is uniquely suited to Woody Island’s challenging environment, allows the island to sustainably accommodate an expanding population of PLA, law enforcement, and bureaucratic personnel and assures the continuous operation of important facilities.


Moreover, officials in Sansha City have carried out a “double support” (双拥) campaign.[7] In the context of Sansha’s development, double support work mainly entails implementing policies that support soldiers and their families. For example, the city has passed various measures to increase subsidies for unemployed military spouses, increase the benefits paid to the families of conscripts, and boost high school entrance exam scores and provide college scholarships for the children of soldiers who are stationed in the city. Similarly, the city has worked to improve the quality of life for soldiers by organizing cultural activities, building sports facilities, acquiring books, and buying sporting equipment. In 2016, the Leading Small Group for National Double Support Work (全国双拥工作领导小组办) named Sansha a “National Double Support Model City” (全国双拥模范城) in recognition of the city’s efforts.


Sansha City’s investments in technology also appear to be rooted in military-civil fusion. For example, in 2020, the city’s meteorological bureau solicited bids for a “military-local government sea and land meteorological information sharing service platform” (军地海陆气象信息共享服务平台).[8] Likewise, as the city built its joint defense system, it reportedly procured “information collection, processing, and distribution and command platforms” to aid maritime law enforcement work, including a “comprehensive monitoring and command system” (综合监控指挥系统) and an “islands dynamic monitoring system” (海岛动态监控系统) for the Paracel Islands. According to the political commissar of the Sansha Garrison, these systems “established a foundation for realizing full monitoring coverage and effective control over Sansha’s maritime space.”


Since 2012, Sansha City has worked to implement military-civil fusion in line with instructions from Beijing. The city has created a joint defense system, facilitated joint construction and common use infrastructure projects, carried out double support work, and invested in technology that aids both PLA and civilian users. Through these military-civil fusion initiatives, the municipal leaders have effectively synthesized PLA and civilian resources to develop Sansha and improve its capacity to assert China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Zachary Haver’s research focuses on the South China Sea disputes and Chinese economic statecraft. He has worked on Chinese security and economic issues at SOS International LLC, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), the Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, and the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. Zachary received his BA in International Affairs from George Washington University. He lived in China for three years, studied Chinese in both Taiwan and China, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.

[1] In “China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy: A View from Chinese Strategists,” Alex Stone and Peter Wood argue that “the optimization of national resource allocation and the generation of combat readiness and economic benefits are near-term, basic goals” for military-civil fusion. More broadly, they suggest that military-civil fusion “is not a simple addition to China’s other national strategic priorities, but rather a strategy whose components are to be woven into China’s system of national strategies to form an organic, powerful, and comprehensive national strategic system that will advance the PRC’s overarching security and development goals.”



[2] For example, when Sansha was founded in 2012, Hainan’s party secretary claimed that the development of Sansha would require “persistently walking the road of attending to both the military and civilians and [military-civil] fusion development” (坚持走军民兼顾,融合发展之路), “vigorously starting dual support and joint construction work” (力开展双拥共建工作), and “the military joining hands in coordination with civilians and the local government, cooperating to defend and build a beautiful Sansha” (军民、军地携手协作,合力保卫和建设美丽的三沙).


[3] Source is a publicly available scanned copy of the contract.


[4] China’s “maritime rights and interests” are composed of claims involving sovereign territorial seas and internal waters, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf rights, historic rights, and the regulation of military activities.


[5] In addition to Sansha City’s professionalized maritime militia forces, ordinary fishermen also contribute to Sansha’s defense system. Using the BeiDou (北斗) satellite navigation system and other capabilities, these fishermen provide a living surveillance network that monitors the waters of the South China Sea for the authorities on Woody Island.


[6] Some sources describe these projects using all three terms; other sources use just one or two, such as “joint construction and common use” (共建共用).


[7] Sources sometimes frame other areas of Sansha City’s military-civil fusion program as part of the city’s double support work. For the sake of clarity, this article separates double support work from other initiatives, such as the city’s efforts to facilitate the military, law enforcement, and civilian joint defense.


[8] Source documents held by author.