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China reveals rare videos of its South China Sea territorial battle

"We're here! The Huangyan Island! The national flag is raised!" a Chinese journalist exclaims after triumphantly hoisting China's red flag atop a coral stone jutting out of the high seas northwest of the Philippines.
Just off Malaysia, Chinese maritime personnel execute a snappy salute in a Chinese flag-raising ceremony on a ship deck to signify Beijing's control over the disputed James Shoal, about 80 kilometers from the nearest Malaysian coast. In a more dangerous development, a Chinese surveillance ship rams a smaller Vietnamese vessel in contested waters.
The gripping video scenes, including footage never before seen by many people, are culled from an eight-part TV documentary entitled “Journey on the South China Sea” that was aired in China by state-run network CCTV 4 from December 24 to 31 last year. With Chinese narration and English subtitles, the documentary has also been posted on CCTV's website for worldwide viewing.
In a communist Asian nation steeped in secrecy, the three-hour plus documentary provides a rare peek into how China works in the shadows to consolidate its territorial claims in strategic waters, spy on rival claimants, and gradually build an armed presence to thwart opponents who challenge its ancient claims and current expansion.
The whole story is told from the eyes of CCTV journalists, who separately accompanied Chinese surveillance personnel, maritime patrols, law enforcers, fishermen and marine experts in journeys across the troubled waters.

‘A chilling message’
Carl Thayer, a prominent expert on the South China Sea disputes, said the video was intended for multiple audiences. The fact that it is in Chinese, with English subtitles, indicates its primary audience was domestic, but that it was also meant to serve as a warning to rival governments, he said.
"The video is a form of reassurance that the Chinese government is at the forefront in defending China's territorial claims in the South China Sea," Thayer told GMA News Online. 
The video, he added, is also "a chilling message to claimant states that China will use physical force such as ramming to enforce its 'sovereign rights.'"
"Since this video, evidence is emerging that the Chinese Coast Guard has introduced ship-to-ship ramming into its tactical repertoire," Thayer said.
Accompanied by soft piano music, the long documentary features panoramic scenes of the turquoise waters which it says harbors hydrocarbon resources and lush marine life, and faraway islands and islets with white powdery-sand beaches. The documentary was obviously designed to foster nationalism among Chinese viewers and drive home the urgency of defending the vast off-shore territory that lies beyond China's southernmost Hainan Island.
It's instilled with patriotism and emotions.
A Chinese soldier clad in camouflage uniform on a remote reef says he has been guarding that patch of contested territory in the middle of nowhere for 16 years. His extraordinary assignment was coming to an end, he says, and he breaks into tears.
"After this mission is finished, I might not have another chance to come to Nansha," the forlorn soldier says, using the Chinese name for what is internationally known as the Spratly Islands.
The string of mostly barren island, islets, reefs and atolls are disputed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. They're believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits and lie near major international sea lanes.
"I work hard to the very last second I guess. I came here when I was 18, an entire youth. After we leave this place, only this 16 years will be worth remembering," he says, explaining that his sacrifices were a way of showing love for country.
"Money is useless here. Relationships are simple. Your motive for coming here is simple too. It was just to give back."
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in a footage dated April 13, 2013, is shown welcoming a boatload of tired-looking fishermen in Hainan's Tanmen coastal community after a long fishing expedition. "Congratulations on your safe return!" Xi says, smiling.
"I wish you a harvest every time you fish in the sea," he says, and later posed with the sunburned men for a souvenir picture. Then as if on cue, the Chinese leader and the fishermen applauded exactly at the same time before the camera to cap the upbeat scene.
Criticized by the United States and its western and Asian allies for territorial aggression, China used the documentary to air its side to the world.
"Since the Western Han Dynasty, basically, the areas of the South China Sea has been a part of China's territory," a Chinese map specialist tells CCTV.
Ancient Chinese maps are flashed on the screen, with a narrator saying that the South China Sea has always been part of all the territorial demarcations "with no exception."
"Based on a large number of historical documents as well as lots of serious and rigorous textual researches, South China Sea islands belong to China. Undeniably, it is a fundamental historical fact," a Chinese analyst says.
Sansha City
In a bid to project that it has political and administrative control over the disputed territories, the Chinese documentary highlights the emergence of Sansha City, which was established in 2012 with its main base in the Paracel Islands, or Xisha in Chinese. Although controlled by China, the cluster of island, islets and reefs are contested by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Xisha's largest territory, Yongxing Island (Woody Island), is depicted as the most developed piece of real estate in the contested region, resembling a small city.

It has a supermarket, a bank, a post office, a desalination facility for drinking water, low-slung buildings, and a main thoroughfare called the Beijing Road. There are mobile phones, Internet connection, cable TV with 52 channels, and a radio station called "Voice of the South China Sea" that continuously airs weather bulletins to fishermen. An aerial shot shows Yongxing's long airstrip.

On Xisha's Yagong Island, about 70 Chinese fishermen receive 500 yuan in monthly subsidy.
People's Liberation Army forces are shown brandishing rifles and conducting combat drills in Yongxing but overall security of the disputed region has been delegated to a police force called the Qionghai Public Security Frontier Detachment. The Qionghai detachment oversees 110 "alarm service platforms" to monitor and respond to distressed fishermen anywhere in the region.
With the developments in Sansha, more young Chinese professionals and graduates are arriving to live and work in the city despite the great distance. Chinese tourists have also begun to visit, according to CCTV.
Battle for South China Sea control
The documentary tackles China's efforts to strengthen its grip across the vast sea where it says Beijing has lost 42 islands to rival claimant countries. A system of patrols and surveillance has been put in place across the South China Sea and forward-deployed bases have been established to defend Chinese sovereignty.
In a show of firepower, CCTV shows Chinese maritime surveillance personnel on the deck of a ship, pointing their assault rifles toward an imaginary target in a combat drill. There is no massive show of military force though, reflecting China's strategy of frontlining civilian paramilitary forces instead of its monstrous People Liberation Army, to avoid giving the US military and its allied forces justification to intervene militarily in the region.
While projecting its firepower capability, China dispels fears, often voiced by Washington, that its increasing presence would eventually threaten freedom of navigation in the region. It says its huge economy thrives in the open waterways where 60 percent of China's foreign traded goods and 80 percent of its imported oil pass through.
Instead of a threat, China is portrayed as the "guardian angel" of the disputed waters, where it has staged rescue missions even of foreign sailors. From 2007 to 2012, Chinese patrols have reportedly saved 18,000 people.
But the documentary sends a clear message that China would not hesitate to act when its interests are threatened.
In a footage of a 2007 clash in the Paracels, a Chinese maritime law enforcement ship was ordered to ram a smaller Vietnamese vessel accused of trying to sabotage a Beijing oil survey.
"We are relentless towards the vessels of any other party engaged in the acts of deliberate sabotage. As long as the commander gives an order, be it hitting, ramming or crashing, we will perform our duty resolutely," says Capt. Yong Zhong of the Haijian 84, which was involved in that face-off with Vietnam.
The documentary also cited a 1974 clash with Vietnam that killed 18 Chinese sailors.
Just off Malaysia, Chinese maritime personnel were shown in a video holding a flag-raising ceremony on April 23, 2013 to symbolically assert China's ownership and control over James Shoal. Malaysian officials have been angered by China's actions and have since deployed navy ships to guard James Shoal from what they call Chinese intrusions into the contested area very close to their coastline.
In the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), which China calls Huangyan Island, the CCTV crew filmed how they hoisted China's flag atop a coral outcrop in November 2012. "We had a sign here," says a Chinese law enforcement officer. "The Philippines blew it up. They put a sign and we blew it up." A past standoff in the shoal was also depicted, showing a Chinese law enforcement ship protecting Chinese fishermen from a "foreign" frigate.
China also revealed a "top secret" operation it staged in August 1994 to erect structures in the Mischief Reef. Contrary to Chinese assurances at the time that they were just building fishermen's shelters, China admitted in the documentary that the structures were meant to serve as a depot for supplies and is now a military outpost equipped with satellite dishes and functions as a Chinese military forward base in the Spratlys.

Three objectives
China's patrols in the disputed areas have three objectives: Show the flag for deterrence, carry out surveillance on other claimant countries, and assert China's territorial control, according to Chen Huabei, deputy director general of the South China Sea sub-bureau of state oceanic administration.
"Only through our law enforcement making its appearance by patroling in the waters we ascertain jurisdiction can we best declare our sovereignty over the waters," Chen said.
Chinese patrol ships are shown spying on military outposts of Vietnam and the Philippines in the Spratlys last year.
Off a Vietnamese-occupied island in the Spratlys, a Chinese surveillance personnel took note of enhancements and new constructions made by Vietnam. They also watched Filipino soldiers in Flat Shoal, called Patag by the Philippines.
"This man is fetching water," a Chinese officer says, pointing to a Filipino soldier on a surveillance monitor. "The man just arrived by a small boat," adds a second officer.
"Take a look at the national flag. It's the flag of the Philippines," the first officer butts in. "What a mess of a house," his companion quips, looking at the dilapidated shacks of Filipino troops.
At the Second Thomas Shoal, called Ayungin by the Philippines and Re'nai by China, a Chinese officer noticed what looked like a new piece of wall on the side of the long-grounded Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre which hosts a small number of Filipino marines.
"This was built after the ship ran aground," a Chinese officer says. "It's like their living quarters," adds another surveillance officer.
The logic of it all: Oil, gas, resources, territory and China's security
The documentary describes the disputed waters as China's largest body of water crucial to its security and a key frontier for fuel and food.
It discloses that China has embarked on major oil and gas explorations but did not say where. Instead, it showed two developed offshore oil fields equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.
China estimates that some 23 to 30 billion barrels of oil and large volumes of natural gas lie beneath the South China Sea. Tens of thousands of tons of precious metals and minerals have been discovered, including manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt. Additionally, large amounts of what it calls "combustible ice" have been found and can be developed by China as an alternative energy source.
At least 1,500 species of fish and marine life are found in the contested waters, including giant manta ray, giant turtles, parrot fish, and flying fish. The waters teem with an estimated 2.81 million tons of fish, including 500,000 tons in the Spratlys.
China began its first scientific studies on potential oil and gas reserves in the Spratlys in 1984, covering 38 reefs, in a study called the Nansha Integrated Scientific Investigation. After it became apparent that the vast waters may be harboring huge oil and gas deposits, rival countries began grabbing Chinese territories, sparking conflicts, according to the documentary.
With all that gold, China has and will use its might to assert control over the contested region, analysts say.
"I think China's actions show that it is committed to utilizing the resources of the South China Sea, irrespective of the legal disputes," Singapore-based analyst Parag Khanna, professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School, told GMA News Online. 
Six months after the Chinese documentary was made public, the response from the international community "has been a resounding silence," reflecting many countries' reluctance to take on China, analyst Thayer said. But the whole region, not only China's current territorial foes, must take heed of the red flags in the video, Thayer warned.
"Privately, the video must be viewed as disturbing not only to the main claimant states, Vietnam and the Philippines, but to other maritime states in Southeast Asia," he said. —KG/RSJ, GMA News