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China to Formally Garrison South China Sea

BEIJING -- China announced Sunday it will establish a military garrison on a disputed island in the South China Sea, in what appeared a significant escalation of tensions in the area.

The planned troops will be stationed at the city of Sansha on one of the Paracel islands that China says will administer three archipelagos -- the Spratlys, Paracels and Macclesfield Bank -- and their surrounding waters.

The announcement -- via a low-key statement on its defense ministry website -- came two days after fractious Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members committed to exercise restraint over the hotly contested area, widely considered a potential global flashpoint.

China only last month announced it was upgrading Sansha to prefectural level while at the same time declared nine oilfields in the sea open to bids from foreign investors in areas overlapping with fields claimed by Vietnam.

China already controls the Paracels and reefs and shoals within the Spratlys, according to the research organization International Crisis Group. Chinese forces seized the then South Vietnam-occupied islands in January 1974.

Beijing claims nearly all of the sea, which holds key shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have vying claims to different areas, as does Taiwan.

The People's Liberation Army will create a division-level command, "responsible for managing the (Sansha) city's national defence mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations", state media said.

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