Vietnam’s 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. Once these projects are finished, the island will be able to accommodate most of the Vietnamese air force’s aircraft. 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.
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. 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. Should Vietnam’s claim to the island be verified, it could invalidate the rest of the nine-dash line boundary. Hanoi is not taking any chances, and it hopes that bolstering its military posture will help to ward off any further Chinese advances.
Vietnam’s moves come at a time of relative calm in the South China Sea dispute. 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 the trend will continue, China has gradually gained the tactical upper hand by modernizing its military, developing its islands and acquiring new deep-sea drilling technology. But China has also experienced 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.
Though some 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.—© STRATFOR