Satellite images released last month by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMIT), run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reveal antiaircraft and antimissile systems now installed on all seven of China’s artificial islands. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claims the artificial islands are part of “China’s inherent territories” on which it was normal to deploy “defense facilities,” while strangely confessing “nor do I know whether there are such systems on the ground as is suggested.”
The deployment of the missile systems follows Xi Jinping’s September 2015 visit to the U.S., during which he assured President Obama that Beijing did not intend to pursue militarization of the Spratly Islands.
While China has drawn most of the international media’s attention in the South China Sea, Vietnam has also been busy conducting dredging work on Ladd Reef in the Spratly Island chain. Ladd Reef, claimed by Beijing and Taipei but controlled by Hanoi, is completely submerged during high tide, though boasts a lighthouse containing housing for a small group of Vietnamese soldiers. Satellite imagery taken late last year by U.S. company Planet Labs shows several vessels in a newly dug channel between a lagoon and the sea, and appears to suggest dredging efforts in advance of extensive construction.
The Spratly Island chain, all of which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, comprises some 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also claim some of the land features. Vietnam occupies 21 features, comprising 6 islands (Spratly Island, Southwest Cay, Sin Cowe Island, Sand Cay, Namyit Island, Amboyna Cay), and such prominent reefs as West Reef, Pearson Reef, Lansdowne Reef, Grierson Reef, Cornwallis South Reef and Central Reef.
In recent months, Hanoi has been actively fortifying its key holdings in the Spratlys, including the construction of a runway, tunnels and bunkers in an effort to defend its territory against China’s growing aggression. Last November, the AMIT confirmed the progress Hanoi has made on Spratly Island with Vietnam’s sole runway in the South China Sea. The runway will soon benefit from an extension to 4,000 feet—capable of accommodating most of Vietnam’s air force planes except for its Antonov An-26 transport planes, and any future P-3 Orion anti-submarine patrol aircraft (to track China’s submarines) Hanoi may purchase from the U.S.
Hanoi has already taken delivery on five of the six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines worth $2.6 billion it ordered since 2009 for deployment at Cam Ranh Bay. The diesel-electric subs operate with near silence and armed with shorter-range torpedoes and sea-skimming anti-ship missiles with a range of 188 miles.
And back in August, diplomats and military officers told Reuters Vietnam had placed rocket launchers on five bases in the Spratly Islands, pointing them toward Chinese facilities. The rocket launchers are believed to be part of Vietnam’s “Extra” rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel. The rockets have a range of 150km (93 miles) and carry 150kg (330 pounds) warheads that can attack multiple targets simultaneously.
Vietnam is but one country in the region beefing up its military muscle—spending on arms rose 5.4% from 2014 to 2015 across Asia compared with 1% worldwide, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
While some South China Sea watchers, such as Greg Poling at CSIS in Washington, hesitate to speculate the activity on Ladd Reef is no more than a channel for supply ships or fishing boats, others are more skeptical. Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence analyst with Britain’s defense ministry, believes the imagery reveals Hanoi’s attempt to “fix any vulnerabilities” and that “in this environment, Vietnam’s strategic mistrust is total […] and they are rapidly improving their defenses.”
In a regular press briefing held last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang responded to a question on the satellite images of Ladd Reef, saying “China exerts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands, Riji Jiao (Ladd Reef) included, and the adjacent waters. China urges relevant countries to respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, stop illegal occupation and construction, and refrain from taking any action that may complicate the situation. It is hoped that they can work together with China for peace and stability of the South China Sea.” Later in the briefing, he referred to China’s historical rights and interests in the South China Sea as “assets handed down from our ancestors.”
Whatever the changes on Ladd Reef ultimately prove to be, the U.S. State Department was quick to condemn any action. Anna Richey-Allen, a spokesperson at State, acknowledged the reports and encouraged restraint, saying, “We’ve consistently warned that reclamation and militarisation in contested areas of the South China Sea will risk driving a destabilizing and escalatory trend,” while adding, “We encourage all claimants to take steps to lower tensions and peacefully resolve differences.”
However, for all the criticism from the U.S. and China over Vietnam’s land reclamation efforts, the changes are relatively modest compared to those recently undertaken by China. According to the website of the AMTI, which tracks land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, Vietnam has added about 120 acres (49 hectares) of land in recent years. The 120 acres which Vietnam has added represents about 3.75% of the 3,200 acres China has added since 2013.
No matter how minor this latest action proves to be, this tit-for-tat land reclamation and militarization of the South China Sea is proving devastating to the fragile marine ecosystem and threatening to spiral out of control. Some littoral states in the region are counting on the U.S. naval presence to preserve peace and prosperity in the East and South China Seas, yet fret over isolationist talk from Washington or the recent inflammatory rhetoric from President-elect Trump surrounding Taiwan, China’s trade practices and the One China policy, and the threatening responses from Beijing.
Hanoi may have drawn comfort from the call between U.S. President-elect Trump and Vietnamese premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc in December, during which Trump “asserted his wish to cooperate with Vietnam to accelerate the relationship between the two countries,” according to Vietnam’s government news website.
Yet much will depend not on the President-elect’s words but on the inaugurated U.S. president’s foreign policy actions once in office. With much of Asia questioning the new U.S. president’s eventual military commitment to the region, the waters of the South China Sea could start heating up again with more militarization of the islands and reefs as Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam hedge their bets.