As China tries to make nice with some of its rivals in the South China Sea, Vietnam is quietly building up its own maritime defenses. Over the past month, a series of satellite images has shown that Hanoi is accelerating its island reclamation and fortification efforts in the Spratly island chain. Combined with its pursuit of defense partnerships with the United States, Russia, France and India, as well as its improving air and naval assets, Vietnam appears determined to thwart China’s ambitions to expand its claims over the disputed waters.
Some of Vietnam’s neighbors, however, may spoil its plans. The Philippines and Malaysia have given in to Chinese pressure and agreed to manage their territorial feuds with Beijing through bilateral talks rather than international arbitration. Though Vietnam has tried to avoid drawing China’s ire by mending ties with it in other ways, Hanoi’s continued defiance on maritime issues could incite retaliation from Beijing that leaves Vietnam with little choice, in the end, but to follow its neighbors’ lead.
Vietnam’s practice of fortifying islands and reefs under its control is nothing new. Military installations and garrisons have dotted the features of the Spratly archipelago — including the Southwest Cay, Sin Cowe Island and Spratly Island itself — for some time. But over the past two years, Vietnam has redoubled its efforts to reclaim and build up these islets and reefs, creating over 50 hectares (120 acres) of new land in the archipelago in spite of US calls for it to stop so as to avoid escalating tensions in the sea.
Vietnam engineers a deterrent
Based on satellite imagery, Vietnam’s latest projects on Spratly Island include the extension of a 600-meter (2,000-foot) runway to 1,200 meters and the construction of two large hangars, in addition to the two that already existed. Once these projects are finished, the island will be able to accommodate most of the Vietnamese air force’s aircraft. According to an assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, they also indicate that Hanoi will probably deploy noncombat aircraft, such as its PZL M28B maritime surveillance planes and CASA C-295 transport planes, to Spratly Island. Meanwhile, dredging work has been spotted at the nearby Ladd Reef that could be designed to provide shelter for Vietnamese vessels inside the lagoon. Unconfirmed reports indicated that Vietnam has positioned rocket artillery in the island chain as well, though Hanoi has denied the claims.
The new features are no match for China’s aggressive buildup in the South China Sea, but they are notable for their position. Located on the sea’s southwestern rim, Spratly Island stands apart from most of the other islets in the Spratly archipelago, boasting a comparatively large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of its own. It also serves as Vietnam’s key military outpost in the Spratly island chain, just as the Thitu and Taiping islands do for the Philippines and Taiwan, respectively. But perhaps just as important, Spratly Island rests on the western edge of the nine-dash line that China insists delineates its South China Sea holdings. Under Beijing’s definition, Spratly Island — and the vast potential resources that fall within its EEZ — belongs to China. Should Vietnam’s claim to the island be verified, it could invalidate the rest of the nine-dash line boundary as well. Hanoi is not taking any chances as China’s creeping encroachment has left Vietnam’s island defenses vulnerable, and it hopes that bolstering its military posture in the Spratlys will help to ward off any further Chinese advances.
China treads carefully
Vietnam’s moves come at a time of relative calm in the ongoing South China Sea dispute. To different degrees, the Philippines and Malaysia have acquiesced to China’s request to handle territorial spats through its preferred mechanism: diplomatic negotiations and joint arrangements that align with Beijing’s interests. Though it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, several factors can explain why it is happening now. For one, China has gradually gained the tactical upper hand in the region over the past six years as it has modernized its military, developed its islands and acquired new deep-sea drilling technology. That said, China has also experienced significant strategic setbacks, not least of which was a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that negated Beijing’s competing claims with the Philippines in the South China Sea. As a result, China seems to have abandoned the outright use of force for a subtler two-track strategy: Using economic and tactical concessions to entice cooperation from some claimants while maintaining pressure against more vocal opponents with limited punitive measures. The former have included offers of joint energy development projects and fishing regulations, while the latter have included diplomatic complaints and interdictions.
Having found themselves with fewer options for countering China’s maritime ambitions, many South China Sea claimants — including the Philippines and Malaysia — have adopted a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing. Though these countries have continued to expand their defense ties with other powers, they have relented in their refusal to settle disputes through bilateral talks with China. Vietnam, however, has proved the exception.
China sees Vietnam’s land reclamation efforts as a provocation, but it has neither the legal grounds nor the appetite to militarily challenge it. Nevertheless, it has the means to pressure Vietnam or undermine Hanoi’s territorial claims, should it so choose. For instance, Beijing could increase its holdings in the Paracel Islands or send coast guard patrols near the Spratlys. It could also begin bidding on or exploring for energy resources around Spratly Island, including in the nearby Vanguard Bank, which Beijing tried to develop in the 1990s. But each of these measures would also risk renewing regional suspicions of China’s intentions, undermining its own goal of reaching one-on-one deals with the sea’s claimants that ultimately work in its favor.
© STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE