More than 5,000 Chinese military staff live on islands in the South China Sea


The islands, including reclaimed reefs, lie in disputed territory.

More than 5,000 Chinese military staff live on islands in the South China Sea

The Youhao hospital ship visited 13 Xisha and Nansha islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

New reports by China’s state-sanctioned media have revealed the extent of the population in Chinese reclaimed and controlled islands in the South China Sea.

CGTN, the global arm of state television network CCTV, reported on Monday that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) hospital ship, Youhao, has just completed an 18-day voyage covering 4,000 nautical miles (7,408 kilometers) and has now returned to port.

The hospital ship, commissioned in November 2020, visited 13 islands of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos in the South China Sea, which China calls Xisha and Nansha islands, and “provided medical services to more than 5,000 people,” according to CGTN.

They are “officers and soldiers stationed on Xisha and Nansha islands and reefs,” the TV channel said.

This is the first time a Chinese official channel has disclosed the number of soldiers on the rocks and reefs that China has reclaimed and developed in the disputed South China Sea. 

A report published earlier this year by Recorded Future, a U.S.-based private cybersecurity company, estimated the number of Chinese troops stationed in the South China Sea was more than 10,000.

A Pentagon report in 2016 said China had reclaimed more than 3,200 acres (13 square kilometers) of land in the South China Sea but the current area of artificial islands is believed to be much larger as reclamation works have continued in recent years.

Three of the reclaimed islands – Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross – all in the Spratlys in the southern part of South China Sea, have been fully militarized with warehouses, hangars, seaports, runways and radars, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John Aquilino said earlier this year.

China’s efforts to transform artificial islands into military bases are “destabilizing to the region,” Aquilino said.

Sansha‘s growing population

China and five other parties including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, hold conflicting claims over parts of the South China Sea but Beijing’s claims are by far the most expansive, almost 90 per cent of the sea. 

In the northern part of the South China Sea, PLA troops seized some of the reefs occupied by the South Vietnam army in 1974 and China is now the sole occupier of the Paracel archipelago with about 130 small coral islands and reefs.

Despite protests from neighboring countries, in 2012 China established Sansha City to administer the Paracel and Spratly islands, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal, and their surrounding waters.


Woody Island in the Paracels serves as the headquarters for Sansha City, which covers nearly two million square kilometers, but includes only around 20 square kilometers of land.

Sansha had only 1,800 permanent residents including civilians and military personnel in 2020, making it the prefecture-level city with the largest area but the smallest population in China, according to another CGTN report.

Youhao, or Friendship in English, is a 4,000-ton hospital ship built in China. The ship has more than 100 beds, three operating theaters, and is equipped with a wide range of medical equipment. 

The ship’s medical staff came from the First Naval Hospital of the Southern Theater Command in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province.

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